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American Society

The term American society is used here to refer to the society of the United States of America. This conventional usage is brief and convenient and implies no lack of recognition for other societies of North, Central, and South America.

Boundaries of modern national societies are permeable and often socially and culturally fuzzy and changeable. Lines on maps do not take into account the cross-boundary flows and linkages of trade, tourists, information, workers, diseases, military arms and personnel, ethnic or linguistic affiliations, and the like. As a large, heterogeneous country, the United States well illustrates such interdependence and cultural diversity.

During the second half of the twentieth century it became increasingly plain that an understanding of American society required analysis of its place in a global system. National societies have become highly interdependent through extensive flows of capital, technology, goods and services, ideas and beliefs, cultural artifacts, and symbols. A world system of politico-military relationships (blocs and hierarchies) interacts with a global system of trade, finance, and population transfers, and both systems are influenced by cultural interpenetration (including organizational forms and procedures).

While these developments were under way, the American people became healthier, life expectancy increased, educational levels rose, income and wealth increased, major new technologies developed (e.g., the so-called Information Revolution), and ethnic and racial minorities gained in income, occupational status, and political participation (Farley 1996). On the other hand, economic inequality increased sharply, the prison population grew rapidly (and became disproportionately made up of African Americans), divorce rates remained at high levels, single-parent households increased, and infant mortality remained high, as did violent crime (Farley 1996).

Containing less than 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States is a polyglot nation of nations that now accepts a greater and more diverse inflow of legal immigrants than any other country—an average of about one million a year from 1990 to 1995. It is often called a young nation, but elements of its culture are continuous with the ancient cultures of Europe, Asia, and Africa, and its political system is one of the most long-enduring constitutional democracies. Many writers have alleged that its culture is standardized, but it continues to show great diversity of regions, ethnic groupings, religious orientations, rural-urban contrasts, age groupings, political views, and general lifestyles. It is a society in which many people seem convinced that it is undergoing rapid social change, while they hold firmly to many values and social structures inherited from the past. Like all other large-scale societies, in short, it is filled with ambiguities, paradoxes, and contradictions.

This society emerged as a product of the great period of European expansion. From 1790 to 1990, the U.S. land area expanded from fewer than 900,000 square miles to well over three million; its populations from fewer than four million to about 265 million. The United States has never been a static social system in fixed equilibrium with its environment. Peopled primarily by history’s greatest voluntary intercontinental migration, it has always been a country on the move. The vast growth of metropolitan areas is the most obvious sign of the transformation of a rural-agricultural society into an urban-industrial society. In 1880, the nation had four million farms; in 1992 it had 1.9 million. From 1949 to 1979 the index of output per hour of labor went from about twenty to about 200. The most massive change in the occupational structure, correspondingly, has been the sharply decreasing proportion of workers in agriculture—now less than 1 percent of the labor force.

The technological transformations that have accompanied these trends are familiar. The total horsepower of all prime movers in 1940 was 2.8 billion; in 1963 it was 13.4 billion; by 1978 it was over 25 billion. Productive capacities and transportation and communication facilities show similar long-term increases. For example, from 1947 to 1995, the annual per capita energy consumption in the United States went from 230 to 345 million BTUs—an increase of about 50 percent. The American people are dependent to an unprecedented degree on the automobile and the airplane. (As of the late 1980s, the average number of persons per passenger car was 1.8; by 1995, there were 201 million motor vehicles in a population of some 263 million—1.6 persons per vehicle.) Mass transit is only weakly developed. During the single decade of the 1960s there was a 50 percent increase in the number of motor vehicles, and in many cities such vehicles account for 75 percent of the outdoor noise and 80 percent of the air pollution. With about 200 million motor vehicles in 1998, it is even possible to imagine an ultimate traffic jam—total immobilization from coast to coast.

All indicators of what we may call ‘‘heat and light’’ variables have increased greatly: energy consumption, pieces of mail handled by the U.S. Postal Service (from 106 billion in 1980 to 183 billion in 1996), televisions (2.3 sets per household in 1995), telephones (93.9 percent of households had one in 1995), radios, electronic mail (29 million persons using the Internet), cellular phones, and fax. A vast flood of messages, images, and information criss-crosses the continent.

In American households, the average number of hours that the television was on increased from 5.6 in 1963 to 6.8 in 1976, and continues to slowly increase. The effects of television viewing are complex, although there is general agreement among researchers that mass exposure is selective, does focus attention on some matters rather than others (raising public awareness), influence attitudes on specific issues—especially those on which information is scanty—and probably has cumulative effects on a variety of beliefs and preferences (cf. Lang and Lang 1992).

In short, this is a society of high technology and extremely intensive energy use. It is also a country that has developed a tightly organized and elaborately interdependent economy and social system, accompanied by vast increases in total economic productivity. Thus the real gross national product doubled in just two decades (1959–1979), increasing at an average rate of 4.1 percent per year (Brimmer 1980, p. 98). But beginning with the sharp increases in oil prices after 1973, the society entered a period of economic stagnation and low productivity that was marked in the 1980s by large trade deficits, greatly increased federal budget deficits, and increased problems of international competitiveness. Coming after a long period of sustained growth, the changes of the 1980s resulted in an economy of low savings, high consumption, and low investment—a situation of ‘‘living beyond one’s means.’’ In the 1990s, a sustained period of low inflation and rising stock markets marked a somewhat uneasy sense of prosperity, seen as insecure as the decade ended.

Major Institutions

‘‘Institution’’ here means a definite set of interrelated norms, beliefs, and values centered on important and recurrent social needs and activities (cf. Williams 1970, chap. 3). Examples are family and kinship, social stratification, economic system, the polity, education, and religion.

Kinship and Family

American kinship patterns are essentially adaptations of earlier European forms of monogamous marriage, bilateral descent, neolocal residence, and diffuse extended kinship ties. All these characteristics encourage emphasis on the marriage bond and the nuclear family. In an urbanized society of great geographical and social mobility and of extensive commercialization and occupational instability, kinship units tend to become small and themselves unstable. Since the 1950s, the American family system has continued its long-term changes in the direction of greater instability, smaller family units, lessened kinship ties, greater sexual (gender) equality, lower birth rates, and higher rates of femaleheaded households. The percentage of married women in the labor force rose from 32 in 1960 to 61 in the 1990s. The so-called ‘‘traditional’’ family of husband, wife, and children under eighteen that comprised 40 percent of families in 1970 had declined to 25 percent in 1995. Over one-fifth of households are persons living alone. Marriage rates have decreased, age at marriage has increased, and rates of divorce and separation continue to be high. The percentage of children under eighteen years of age living in mother-only families increased in the years between 1960 and 1985, from 6 to 16 among white, and from 20 to 51 among black Americans (Jaynes and Williams 1989, p. 522). As individuals, Americans typically retain commitment to family life, but external social and cultural forces are producing severe family stresses.

Social Stratification

Stratification refers to structural inequalities in the distribution of such scarce values as income, wealth, power, authority, and prestige. To the extent that such inequalities result in the clustering of similarly situated individuals and families, ‘‘strata’’ emerge, marked by social boundaries and shared styles of life. When succeeding generations inherit positions similar to previous generations, social classes can result.

The American system is basically one of open classes, with relatively high mobility, both within individual lifetimes and across generations. A conspicuous exception has been a caste-like system of racial distinctions, although this has eroded substantially since the civil rights movement of the 1960s (Jaynes and Williams 1989). The 1980s and 1990s were marked by growing income inequality, as the rich became richer and the poor did not. Large increases in earnings inequality accrued during the 1980s; meanwhile labor unions had large membership losses and labor markets were deregulated (unions lost over 3 million members between 1980 and 1989—see Western 1998, pp. 230–232). Union membership declined from 20.1 percent of workers in 1983 to 14.5 percent in 1996 (Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1997, p. 441).

In the early 1990s, the United States had the highest income inequality of any of twenty-one industrialized countries (the income of individuals of the highest decile was over six times the income of the lowest decile). The United States differs from other industrialized countries in the especially great disadvantage of its poorest people. This result arises from very low wages at the bottom of the distribution and low levels of income support from public programs (Smeeding and Gottschalk 1998, pp. 15–19).

The end-of-the-century levels of inequality are less than in the early decades of the 1900s, but represent large increases since the lower levels at the end of the 1960s (Plotnick, Smolensky, Evenhouse, and Reilly 1998, p. 8). By 1996, the richest 20 percent of Americans received about 47 percent of total income, while the poorest got 4.2 percent.

The dominant ideology remains individualistic, with an emphasis on equality of opportunity and on individual achievement and success. Although extremes of income, power, and privilege produce strong social tensions, the system has shown remarkable stability.

The history of stratification has included conquest of Native Americans, slavery of African peoples, and extensive discrimination against Asians, Hispanics, and various immigrants of European origin. Assimilation and other processes of societal inclusion have moved the whole society increasingly toward a pluralistic system, but deep cleavages and inequalities continue. A fundamental tension persists between principles of equality of opportunity and individual merit, on the one hand, and practices of ascribed status and group discrimination, on the other (cf. Myrdal, Sterner, and Rose 1944).

As a consequence of increased openness since the Immigration Act of 1965, the population contains increased proportions of persons whose backgrounds are in Asia and Latin America; this development complicates ethnic/racial boundaries and alignments, including political formations (Edmonston and Pasell 1994). The increased receptivity to immigrants was enhanced by the Refugee Act of 1980, the Immigration and Control Act of 1986, and the Immigration Act of 1990. The result is that the number of immigrants admitted per year has soared to an average of about a million during the period 1990–1995 (Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1997, p. 10). Although vigorous political controversy surrounds immigration, the country remains committed to a general policy of acceptance and to citizenship by residence rather than by ethnic origin.

Although much reduced in its most obvious forms, discrimination against African Americans continues to be widespread, in housing (Yinger 1995), credit, and employment (Wilson 1996; Jaynes and Williams 1989). Residential segregation continues at high levels, although the 1980s brought a small movement toward more residential mixing, primarily in smaller Southern and Western cities (Farley and Frey 1994).

The Economy

The American economic system is a complex form of ‘‘high capitalism’’ characterized by large corporations, worldwide interdependence, high levels of private consumption, and close linkages with the state.

Increased specialization leads both to increased complexity and to increased interdependence, two sides of the same coin. In the United States, as in all industrialized countries, the movement from the primary extractive and agricultural industries to manufacturing was followed by growth of the tertiary exchange-facilitating activities, and then to expansion of occupations having to do with control and coordination and those ministering directly to the health, education, recreation, and comfort of the population. As early as 1970, nearly two-thirds of the labor force was in pursuits other than those in ‘‘direct production’’ (primary and secondary industries).

Since the late 1970s, there has been rapid growth in involuntary part-time jobs and in other insecure and low-paying employment as the economy has shifted toward trade and services and corporations have sought to lower labor costs (Tilly 1996).

As the economy has thus shifted its focus, the dominance of large corporations has become more and more salient. In manufacturing, the total value added that is accounted for by the 200 largest companies went from 37 percent in 1954 to 43 percent in 1970. Of all employees in manufacturing, the percent working in multi-unit firms increased from 56 percent in 1947 to 75 percent by 1972 (Meyer 1979, pp. 27–28). The top 500 industrial companies account for three-fourths of industrial employment (Wardwell 1978, p. 97).

Meanwhile, organized labor has not grown correspondingly; for decades, overall unionization has remained static, increasing only in the service, technical, and quasi-professional occupations. The importance of the great corporations as the primary focus of production and finance continues to increase. Widespread dispersion of income rights in the form of stocks and bonds has made the giant corporation possible, and this same dispersion contributes directly to the concentration of control rights in the hands of salaried management and minority blocs of stockholders. With widened markets for mass production of standardized products, strong incentives were created for effective systems of central control. Although such tendencies often overreached themselves and led to a measure of later decentralization, the modern corporation, not surprisingly, shows many of the characteristics of the most highly developed forms of bureaucracy.

The interpenetration of what were previously regarded as separate political and economic affairs is a central fact. The interplay takes many different forms. For a long time government has set rules for maintaining or lessening business competition; it has regulated the plane or mode of competition, the conditions of employment, and the place and functioning of labor unions. Pressure groups, based on economic interests, ceaselessly attempt to influence law-making bodies and executive agencies. Governmental fiscal and monetary policies constitute a major factor influencing economic activity. As the economic role of the state has expanded, economic forces increasingly affect government itself and so-called private corporations increasingly have come to be ‘‘public bodies’’ in many ways, rivaling some sovereign states in size and influence. The post-1980s political movements for a smaller role for the central government resulted in a partial dismantling of the ‘‘welfare state’’ but did not remove the important linkages of state and economy.

Political Institutions

In ideology and law the American polity is a parliamentary republic, federal in form, marked by a strong central executive but with a tripartite separation of powers. From the highly limited state of the eighteenth century, the actual government has grown in size and scope and has become more complex, centralized, and bureaucratized. Partly because of pervasive involvement in international affairs, since World War II a large permanent military establishment has grown greatly in size and importance. In 1996, the Department of Defense included 3.2 million persons, and total defense and veterans outlays amounted to $303 billion. The executive agencies, especially the presidency, became for decades increasingly important relative to the Congress, although the 1990s brought a resurgence of congressional power. Among other changes, the following appear to be especially consequential:

1. Continuing struggles over the character of the ‘‘welfare state,’’ dedicated to maintaining certain minimal safeguards for health and economic welfare;

2. High development of organized interest groups, which propose and ‘‘veto’’ nearly all important legislation. The unorganized general public retains only an episodic and delayed power to ratify or reject whole programs of government action. A rapid increase in the number of Political Action Committees—from 2551 in 1980 to 4016 in 1995—is only one indication of the importance of organized interests;

3. Decreased cohesion and effectiveness of political parties in aggregating interests, compromising parties in conflict, and reaching clear public decisions;

4. Increasingly volatile voting and diminished party regularity and party commitment (split-ticket voting, low rates of voting, large proportion of the electorate with no firm party reference).

American political parties are coalitions of diverse actors and interests, with accompanying weak internal discipline, but they remain relatively stable under a system of single-member districts and plurality voting—’’first past the post.’’ Although the polity is subject to the hazards of instability associated with a presidential rather than parliamentary system, the national federal system, the separation of powers, and the centrality of the Constitution and the judiciary combine to support the traditional two-party electoral arrangement, although support for a third party appears to be growing (Lipset 1995, p. 6).

Historically, political parties in the United States have been accommodationist: They have served to articulate and aggregate interests through processes of negotiation and compromise. The resulting ‘‘packages’’ of bargains have converted diverse and diffuse claims into particular electoral decisions. To work well, such parties must be able to plan nominations, arrange for representativeness, and sustain effective competition. In the late twentieth century, competitiveness was weakened by volatile elections—for example, landslides and deadlocks with rapidly shifting votes—and by party incoherence. In the nominating process the mass media and direct primaries partly replaced party leaders and patronage. Representativeness was reduced by polarization of activists, single-issue voting, and low turnouts in primaries. And the inability of parties to protect legislators seemed to increase the influence of single-issue organizations and to enlarge the scope of ‘‘symbolic’’ actions. Hard choices, therefore, tended to be deferred (cf. Fiorina 1980, p. 39).

The existence of an ‘‘interest-group’’ polity was clearly indicated. The political system readily expressed particular interests but found difficulties in articulating and integrating partly incompatible demands into long-term national programs.

As the century drew to a close, many commentators expressed concerns about the increasing expense of political campaigns, the increasing importance of very large contributions through Political Action Committees, the potential influence upon voters of ‘‘vivid soundbites’’ on television, and the increasing centralization of control of the mass media. At the same time, the conspicuous behavior of so-called independent counsels (special prosecutors) raised the fears that a ‘‘Fourth Branch’’ of government had arisen that would be relatively free of the checks and balances, traditional in the tripartite system of governance. Public opinion polls showed increased disaffection with political institutions and processes, and lower voting turnouts indicated much apathy in the electorate. As investigations, prosecutions, and litigation have escalated and have been rendered omnipresent by the media, erosion of trust in government has likewise increased greatly (Lipset 1995).

Yet detailed analysis of data from national public opinion surveys in the last decade of the century failed to find the alleged extreme polarization that had been suggested by acrimonious partisanship between the political parties and in the Congress. Thus, a major study (DiMaggio, Evans, and Bryson 1996) found little evidence of extreme cleavages in social opinions between 1974 and 1994, with two exceptions: attitudes toward abortion diverged sharply, and the attitudes of those who identify with the Democratic and Republican parties have become more polarized. Instead of moderating dissension, the party system between 1970 and the 1990s appears to have sharpened cleavages. There is a possibility that some political leaders have been pulled away from centrist positions by militant factions within their own party. The total picture seemed to be that of extreme contentiousness within the central government while the wider society showed much greater tolerance, consensus, and stability.


In addition to diffuse processes of socialization found in family and community, specialized educational institutions now directly involve one-fifth of the American people as teachers, students, and other participants. In the twentieth century, an unparalleled expansion of mass education occurred. Nearly 80 percent of the appropriate age group graduate from secondary school and 62 percent of these attend college; in 1993, 21.3 percent had completed four years of college or more.

Historically, the educational system was radically decentralized, with thousands of school districts and separate educational authorities for each state (Williams 1970, chap. 8). In contrast to countries with strong central control of education and elitist systems of secondary and higher education, the United States for most of its history has had a weak central state and a mass education system. Education was driven by demands for it rather than by state control of standards, facilities, tests, curricula, and so on (cf. Garnier, Hage, and Fuller 1989).

These characteristics partly derive from widespread faith in education as a means of social advancement as well as from commitments to equality of opportunity and to civic unity. Inequalities of access were long enforced by involuntary racial segregation, now somewhat reduced since 1954, when the Supreme Court declared such segregation unconstitutional. Inequalities of access due to social class and related factors, of course, continue (Jencks et al. 1979). Formal educational attainments have come to be so strongly emphasized as a requirement for employment and advancement that some observers speak of the development of a ‘‘credential society’’ (Collins 1979). Meanwhile the slow but steady decline in students’ test scores has aroused much concern but little agreement as to remedial measures.

Religious Institutions

Major characteristics of institutionalized religion include: formal separation of church and state, freedom of religious expression and practice, diversity of faiths and organizations, voluntary support, evangelism, high rates of membership and participation, widespread approval of religion and acceptance of religious beliefs, complex patterns of partial secularization, frequent emergence of new religious groupings, and important linkages between religious affiliations and social class and ethnicity (cf. Williams 1970, chap. 9; Wilson 1978).

Many of these characteristics are causally interrelated. For example, earlier sectarian diversity encouraged separation of church and state and religious toleration, which, in turn, favored further diversity, voluntarism, evangelism, and religious innovations. Self-reported religious affiliations in social surveys shows these percentages: Protestant, 60; Catholic, 25; Jewish, 2; other, 4; none, 9. These broad categories cover hundreds of diverse groupings (General Social Surveys 1994).

Changes include growth in membership of evangelical Protestant denominations (now onefifth of the population, Hunter 1997), closer ties between religious groupings and political activities, and the rise of many cults and sects. Separation of church and state was increasingly challenged in the 1990s, and religious militancy in politics increased. Nevertheless, national surveys (1991) showed that the religiously orthodox and theological progressives were not polarized into opposing ideological camps across a broad range of issues—although there were sharp divisions on some particular issues (Davis and Robinson 1996).

Among industrialized Western countries, the United States manifests extraordinary high levels of membership and participation. Thus, although there has been extensive secularization, both of public life and of the practices of religious groups themselves, religious influence remains pervasive and important (Stark and Bainbridge 1985).

Social Organization

The long-term increase in the importance of largescale complex formal organizations, salient in the economy and polity, is evident also in religion, education, and voluntary special-interest associations. Other trends include the reduced autonomy and cohesion of small locality groupings and the increased importance of special-interest formal organizations and of mass publics and mass communication. The long-term effects of the saturation of the entire society with advertising, propaganda, assorted information, and diverse and highly selective world views remain to be ascertained. Local communities and kinship groupings have been penetrated more and more by formal, centralized agencies of control and communication. (Decreasing localism shows itself in many forms. A well-known and striking example is the continuous decrease in the number of public school districts.)

These changes have moved the society as a whole in the direction of greater interdependence, centralization, formality, and impersonality.

Values and Beliefs

Beliefs are conceptions of realities, of how things are. Values are conceptions of desirability, of how things should be (Williams 1970, chap. 11). Through shared experience and social interaction, communities, classes, ethnic groupings, or whole societies can come to be characterized by similarities of values and beliefs.

The weight of the evidence for the United States is that the most enduring and widespread value orientations include an emphasis on personal achievement (especially in occupational activity), success, activity and work, stress on moral principles, humanitarianism, efficiency and practicality, science, technology and rationality, progress, material comfort, equality, freedom, democracy, worth of individual personality, conformity, nationalism and patriotism; and, in tension with most other values, values of group superiority and racism. Mixed evidence since the 1970s seems to indicate complex shifts in emphasis among these orientations—primarily in the direction of success and comfort, with lessened commitment to more austere values. Some erosion in the emphasis placed on work and some lessening in civic trust and commitment may have occurred.

In contrast to many images projected by the mass media, national surveys show that most Americans still endorse long-standing beliefs and values: self-reliance, independence, freedom, personal responsibility, pride in the country and its political system, voluntary civic action, anti-authoritarianism, and equality within limits (Inkeles 1979; Williams 1970, chap. 11). And for all their real disaffections and apprehensions, most Americans see no other society they prefer: As late as 1971, surveys in eight countries found that Americans were less likely than persons in any other country to wish to live elsewhere (Campbell, Converse, and Rodgers 1976, pp. 281–285). Americans in national public opinion surveys (1998) ranked second among twenty-three countries in pride in the country and in its specific achievements. Thus, popular attitudes continue to reflect a perennial satisfaction and positive nationalism (Smith and Jarkko 1998).

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