After hearing about reflexive modernization in one of my sociology classes and attending a masterclass by Theodore Dalrymple, I started to wonder about modern day accountability and responsibility. I’m gonna put several ideas forward that might already be part of contemporary theories on societies. I will argue that society’s structure can influence perceptions of responsibility.
Complexity. Complex societies have existed before, there are countless examples of civilizations with hierarchical structures, institutions, and laws. However, nowadays with ongoing globalization, we have established diplomatic relations between countries. This means that decisions made by one society can affect the status quo in another society. Laws are often updated and adjusted to modern day situations, such as the emergence of a virtual space (the internet) in which regulations are also imposed. The difference between today’s societies and ancient societies is that changes are happening so quickly that modern citizens can’t even keep up with the changes. According to the law, you’re supposed to know what is allowed and what isn’t. You can’t blame ignorance. But it’s almost impossible to know every rule implemented by the government. Not knowing the rules and rights means being unaware of responsibility and accountability. Thus, the complexity of today’s societies has made it difficult to know all your responsibilities according to the law. A consequence of the law being strictly imposed on a society, people might only fulfill lawful duties and cast aside their moral duties.
Institutions. With the emergence of a myriad of laws came institutions. In bureaucratic societies, institutions exist merely to monitor other institutions. Many examples exist where the web of institutions might have had an effect in the failure of achieving a goal or unsuccessfully intercepting problems. For instance, in the Netherlands different institutions exist to aid those in problematic situations, each institution has a task in helping these individuals. Though, it’s not always possible for these institutions to effectively work together. When things end badly (e.g. children suffering domestic abused not being helped in time), it’s often the question who’s responsibility it was.
Anonymity. Moral responsibility is also harder to impose in complex societies, such as helping out your neighbor, being empathetic towards strangers in public spaces (e.g. giving up your seat for elderly), no littering, or being inconsiderate in traffic. In several countries, you can get fined for some behaviors associated with the aforementioned examples. For instance, I have been told that there are strict regulations on littering in Singapore. But not every society has such set rules and it comes down to unwritten rules, norms. But are norms enough for people to feel responsible for their behavior? Or do need people the threat of being fined? Many studies have found evidence for social pressure being enough to either stop people from behaving a certain way or to get them do something. Though, when people live in bigger cities, this social pressure diminishes, suddenly they are anonymous for a large part of the day. In such a setting, people might not feel entirely responsible for their actions.
Individualism. Not only are people in larger societies more anonymous, but they might also be more individualized. In a structured society with many institutions to provide aid to people for their problems, and paid services to meet their daily needs, people’s ties to groups might have weakened. People still organize themselves in groups, and it can greatly help them to get things done. However, they no longer rely on these groups to provide in all of their needs. For example, I do not need to establish a relationship with the cashier at my local supermarket before she’s willing to trade food for money with me. It’s easier to not be responsible because people have less risky relationships to maintain overall.
‘Let’s Hypothesize’ is part of an article series in which I do not rely on scientific references. Instead I will speculate on topics related to consumer behavior. Plus I will include more historical facts and sociological theories.