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Macrosociology and Sociological Theory: Some New Directions

Author(s): S. N. Eisenstadt
Reviewed work(s):
Source: Contemporary Sociology, Vol. 16, No. 5 (Sep., 1987), pp. 602-609
Published by: American Sociological Association
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Featured Essay
Editor's Note:
S. N. Eisenstadt's topical essay is a new kind of review that CS will occasionally feature. It differs
from the usual review of specific works in that it examines literature in a topical area to assess major
problems of study and directions of inquiry. Books discussed may include ones already reviewed, as
well as new titles that have not yet been reviewed.
Macrosociology and Sociological Theory:
Some New Directions
Hebrew University, Jerusalem
The last decade-especially the last five years
or so-has witnessed a revival of comparative
macrosociological analysis, within the frame-
work of the analysis of world history. This is
indeed a revival, because such analysis, com-
bined with the examination of major problems in
sociological analysis and theory, has constituted
one of the major items on the sociological
agenda during some of the most crucial periods
in its development as a distinct intellectual and
scholarly discipline. This was true of the period
of the forerunners of sociology, such as Comte,
Spencer, and the anthropology of Tylor; of the
period of the so-called Fathers of Sociology,
Durkheim and Weber; as well as earlier, in the
works of Marx and Toqueville, who were later
incorporated into the sociological tradition.
This was also true of the period after World
War II, when sociology burgeoned in the United
States and then in other countries, and for the
first time became a full-fledged and relatively
central academic discipline. At that juncture, the
connection between the emphasis on macrosociol-
ogy, world history, and the central problems of
sociological analysis was most fully epitomized
in the works of the structural-functional school
and in the "classical" studies of moderniza-
tion-those linked with the names of Daniel
Lerner, Karl Deutsch, Garbriel Almond, and
The interest in this type of analysis seemingly
disappeared in the late sixties, with the partial-
and to some extent paradoxical-exception of
certain offshoots of Marxist analysis, especially
those emphasizing various international system
approaches. Its disappearance was tied in with
far-reaching changes in the basic assumptions,
I am grateful to Prof. G. Roth for discussion of
problems related to this essay.
ambience, and orientations of social science anal-
ysis that developed as a result of the controver-
sies concerning the structural-functional school,
and of the major changes in the intellectual cli-
mate of Western society that started to evolve in
the sixties, and which have been sometimes de-
scribed as the emergence of postmodernity or of
a postmodern consciousness.
This new vision, tracing its antecedents back
to Vico and Dilthey, seemed to bring together
an extreme interpretation of the Wittgensteinian
concept of different "language games" -imply-
ing the basic impossibility of mutual "transla-
tion" between such games-with some interpre-
tations of postmodernity: for instance those of
Lyotard (1985) (and before him Foucault [Hoy
1987]), which denied the validity of the
presumed predominance of the scientific world
view, of any strong future orientations, of any
future common to the whole of humanity, of any
idea of progress-and stressed instead multiple
futures. It denied also the existence of any
common criteria-especially those such as
liberty, freedom, or progress-according to
which different societies, particularly contempo-
rary ones, and the trends of their developments
can be compared or evaluated.
What developed instead was a sort of implicit
emphasis on the uniqueness of each society, and
sometimes even on the impossibility of any
comparative analysis. This neglect of the
comparative and historical dimensions of socio-
logical and anthropological analysis was also
closely connected with an important shift in
most anthropological and some sociological
works-with the exception of the anthropologi-
cal researches of Dumont (1957, 1966), Tam-
biah (1976), Obeyskere (1976, 1981, 1984),
and Keyes (1977, 1979, 1981, 1986)-from
macrosociological analysis towards a growing
emphasis on the study of daily life or of
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Yet strong countertendencies started to de-
velop in the mid-seventies. ' These countertenden-
cies were first visible in those areas of political
sociology that called for the rediscovery of the
state, and focused either on specific topics -
such as the study of revolutions or the impact of
the state on different types of policies-or on
the formation of different social movements
(Skocpol 1979; Evans, Rueschmeyer, and Skoc-
pol 1986; Bright and Harding 1984).
Gradually, however, analyses appeared in
which comparative macrosociological analysis
was again combined, albeit in a new mode, with
that of world history, as well as with some of
the basic analytical or theoretical problems of
sociological analysis.
Among these works-articles, books, and
symposia-the most important are probably
those by Jean Baechler (1971, 1986), Daniel
Chirot (1985), John Hall (1985, 1986a), Randall
Collins (1986), and Michael Mann (1986,
1987), as well as Bryan Turner's evaluations
(1981, 1987) of Weber's work (especially his
recent study of Weber's analysis of the
emergence of modem science, as well as the
series of Weber symposia organized by W.
Schluchter, in which many aspects of the major
civilizations analyzed by Weber-ancient Juda-
ism, Confucianism and Taoism, Hinduism and
Buddhism, early Christianity, and Islam [1981,
1983, 1984, 1985, 1987]-were
and Schluchter's own work (1981, 1984).
All these works confront the "classical"
problems of such analysis: namely, how to
explain the origin of the modern world in
general and of capitalism in particular, and the
uniqueness of the West. They all attempt to
reopen such macrosociological analysis with a
vision of world history. These works are
naturally also very much interested in the
expansion of modern civilization. Unlike the
early studies of modernization, these works deal
not only with the fact that many dimensions of
modernity have expanded beyond the West, but
also with the diversity of the dynamics of these
"postmodern" or post-traditional social and
cultural orders.
These works also share many common
analytical themes arising out of recent major
theoretical controversies; at the same time,
R. Bendix's Kings or People constitutes, of course,
one of the earliest exceptions to the overall trend. It can
also be seen as the apogee of the comparative studies of
the society.
however, they differ from them with respect to
some central theoretical issues. When taken
together, they point to the possibility of a
reconsideration of some of these theoretical
problems and of their relation to sociological
research, especially to macrosociological analy-
sis viewed in the perspective of world history.
First of all, these works do not accept any
simple evolutionist view-a charge often made
against the earlier studies of modernization and
convergence of individual societies-although
some of the problems posed by that view
(especially what may be called the expansive
capacities-whether in the cultural, political, or
economic spheres of societies or civilizations)
are addressed in many of them. Second, most of
these works do not accept the "closed systemic"
view of societies so heavily emphasized by the
structural-functional school. Some of them
explicitly criticize this view, stressing instead
groups and networks that carry various "mate-
rial" and "ideal" interests of different actors. In
other works (especially in the Weber symposia),
such criticism or nonacceptance of the closed
systemic view is more implicit. Third, these
studies share a strong emphasis on comparative
and historical institutional analysis. They all
focus on the analysis of similar institutions, such
as cities, political centers, religious institutions,
and classes-although there are significant
differences among them with regard to some
central aspects of such analysis. Finally, all of
them place a systematic emphasis on civiliza-
tions as important problems of macrosociologi-
cal analysis and on intersocietal or interciviliza-
tional relations. Thus they not only attempt to
analyze different societies in isolation, they also
combine such an analysis with that of some
major patterns of societal dynamics, as they are
interconnected through population movements,
wars and conquests, the encounters of nomad
peoples with settled ones, migrations, trade, and
cultural and religious movements. Moreover,
these works lay heavy emphasis on the impor-
tance of broader civilizational units-Judaism,
Islam, medieval Europe-not just of seemingly
self-centered (political) societies, as the way or
avenue of comparative sociological analysis.
In most of these works the combination of the
antievolutionist attitude with a strong emphasis
on historical, institutional, and interciviliza-
tional perspective is connected with a strong
emphasis on the importance of various contin-
gent historical trends for explaining the develop-
ment of different institutional formations.
The theoretical differences among these views
can already be discerned with respect to the
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mode of analysis of these international relations,
as well as to the relative importance of different
contingent factors. There are rather important
differences between the two groups of these
works-those of Hall, Baechler, and Chirot on
the one hand, and the Weber symposia as well
as Schluchter's own work on the other (with
Collins and Mann standing somewhere in the
The first group of works stresses such
intersocietal or intercivilizational geopolitical
factors as migrations, invasions, and trade. To
some extent these analyses follow in the
footsteps of the Chicago historian W. MacNeill
(1963, 1983). It is the combination of such
broad intersocietal vision with systematic socio-
logical analysis that constituted the major
contribution of many of these works.
At the same time, the various Weber
symposia laid a much stronger emphasis on
what can be called interreligious or intercultural
relations, with little systematic emphasis of the
international geopolitical dimensions or aspects
of such interrelations.
These differing emphases on various aspects
or dimensions of intersocietal or interciviliza-
tional relations and the interpretation of impor-
tance of contingent forces are closely related to
what constitutes the major theoretical or analyt-
ical differences among these works. This
difference is centered in the relationship be-
tween culture and society or, as it has been often
and not very felicitously put, on the "role of
ideas" in institutional dynamics.
All these works address this problem through
an examination of Weber's analysis of the role
of ideas in world history, and especially his
analysis of the Protestant Ethic and the "ethics"
of the other great religions or civilizations. It is
here that the major difference between the two
groups of works is most prominent.
The common denominator among the mem-
bers of the first group-including Daniel Chirot,
Jean Baechler, and John Hall (and to some
extent also Randall Collins and Michael Mann)-
is the emphasis on the importance of the
continuous development and conjunction of
demographic, technological, and structural char-
acteristics, especially a certain type of political
decentralization, for understanding the rise of
Western capitalism. They emphasize the impor-
tance of the existence in Europe of multiple and
closely interconnected centers of power, within
common and relatively cohesive civilizational
frameworks, with no single strong center able to
monopolize the flow of resources.
All these scholars analyze multiple and
relatively autonomous institutions (cities, the
Church, and the like) and the continuous
competition between them rooted in the inability
of any of them, or of the state, to monopolize
power and resources-but combined with some
often unspecified cohesiveness-in marked con-
trast to the situation in China, India, or Islam,
where either the state or some coalition of
political and religious elites was able to
monopolize the control of some resources, often
undermining each other.
It is such structural pluralism, continuously
spurred by technological and demographic
growth, that permitted the far-reaching recon-
struction of many aspects of European society,
and ultimately led to the rise of capitalism,
bureaucracy, the nation-state, and the like.
Hall's analysis, taking off from Ernest
Gellner's conception of agroliterate polities,
focuses on several central institutional aspects
of the place of religion in such societies-
namely, on the relations between the political
and the religious elites, and the degree and
mode of autonomy of the latter, as against the
former; and on the mode of cooperation between
them and the ways in which they organize
"civil" society and allow for some independent
developments from within it.
In these works the emphasis on structural
pluralism is strongly connected with the analysis
of various geopolitical factors-especially the
weakness in Europe of any compact political
boundaries, and the continuous restructuring of
such boundaries through intersocietal or interciv-
ilizational relations, such as migrations and
trade-between Europe and Asia as well as
within Europe itself.
Although some important differences with
respect to their attitude towards the relationship
between culture and social structure or towards
the role of ideas in shaping the dynamics of
societies can be identified within these works,
they nevertheless seem to share-very much in
line with some of the theoretical currents of the
last two decades-the view of religion (or
culture) and social structure as distinct ontolog-
ical entities, and the closely related view of
religious groups as just another group, with
specific power, status, or economic interests
that compete with other such groups.
Among these scholars, Baechler, Chirot, and
Hall minimize the autonomous role of culture,
religion, or ideas in the construction of social
order and in institutional dynamics. They see
religion as a series of beliefs, and possibly
patterns of worship; they voice rather heavy
doubts with respect to the direct relationship
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between such beliefs -as for instance Karmic
belief in Hinduism-and economic activity.
They stress instead economic forces and the
structure of power as the crucial elements in
such dynamics.
Some of them, especially Hall, base their
analysis on the relationship between the political
power elites and the intellectual elites; they see
the latter's relative autonomy as a crucial aspect
of Western European civilization. They explain
the importance of intellectuals in society in
terms of the mundane functions they perform-
such as providing bureaucratic services, keeping
the peace, and the like.
With the partial exception of Collins and
Mann, they seemingly deny the possibility that
the contents of the beliefs or visions articulated
by the intellectuals may in some way be related
to how they exert their influence on institutional
formations. The most extreme illustration of this
attitude can probably be found in Baechler's
work. He stresses the importance of caste
organization in the economic underdevelopment
of India, but does not address himself to the
relationship between the caste system and
Hinduism as a religion.
As against these extreme views, Collins and
Mann accept the importance of ideas or beliefs
in the dynamics of civilizations, in a variety of
ways. For Mann, ideas are one possible source
of social power; transcendental religions-e.g.,
the monotheistic religions, Hinduism and Bud-
dhism, as against, according to him, Confucian-
ism-did have a significant influence as such an
independent source of power on the course of
world history. Collins admits the importance of
religion as one element or component in the
development of the contingent forces that led to
the rise of the West. Moreover, in general he
distinguishes between the social and political
impact of two different types of religion, the
moralistic and the mystical-and of the ortho-
doxies and the heterodoxies that develop within
Yet even the first group of scholars admits the
importance of ideas or ideologies in the
construction of social order, and of institutional
dynamics. Almost all of them stress the
importance of rationalization-whether of law,
of administration (especially Church administra-
tion), or of accounting procedures-as major
factors in the development of modern institu-
tions in general and of capitalism in particular.
Some of them, especially Baechler, do admit the
possible negative impact of religious beliefs on
some aspects of such dynamics. Finally, some
of them admit, presumably in close relation to
the emphasis on the importance of the internal
cohesion of elites referred to above, in a
markedly Durkheimian way, a more positive
role for the ideology of communal or national
solidarity (especially in Japan)-as against that
of religious beliefs-in institutional dynamics
(Baechler 1986; Mutel 1986).
But perhaps even more indicative is the fact
that some of them, especially Hall, while
denying the importance of beliefs in shaping
institutional dynamics, do admit to such a
statement as "Islamic ideology had its own
political theory; and justified politics only when
used for sacral purposes" (p. 205).
In these ways they point to a different
approach to the relations between the culture
and social structure-but an approach that,
given their presuppositions, especially the view
of culture and social structure as distinct
ontological entities, they cannot develop system-
A radically different tack is taken in the
symposia edited by Schluchter, and in Schlucht-
er's own work. Their starting point is the
Weberian problematic of different patterns of
rationalization of the major religions-a starting
point that entails a strong emphasis on the role
of religion or ideas in institutional dynamics.
The basic difference between the works of the
first group of scholars and those of the Weber
symposia is perhaps most evident in the fact that
the symposia (as well as other works that have
attempted to apply a Weberian perspective to the
analysis of civilizations) emphasize one type of
group or institution that is almost entirely absent
in the other studies (with the partial exception of
Collins)-namely heterodoxies-as a crucial
factor in civilizational and also, potentially,
intercivilizational dynamics.
This difference among the institutional analy-
ses of the different scholars is not accidental. It
does not indicate just a quantitative difference
from the works of the first group with respect to
the "relative weight" of ideas as against
different material forces. It rather points to an
entirely different way of looking at the relation-
ship between "ideas" and "beliefs" -culture in
general-on the one hand, and social structure
on the other. It is closely related to the at least
implicit recognition in the Weber symposia, as
well as in other comparative works inspired by
the Weberian vision, of the analytical distinction
between those aspects of religious activities and
beliefs that are akin to other specialized
activities-economic, technical, administrative,
and the like-and those aspects of such
activities which can indeed be seen as constitu-
tive of social order.
In this way these various works are able to
indicate the possibilities of a new approach to
the relationship between culture and social
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structure and their implications for comparative
macrosocietal analysis, which have been hinted
at (but could not be explicated) in Hall's work,
for instance, and to go beyond the definition of
culture and social structure as distinct ontologi-
cal entities and beyond mutually exclusive
deterministic and reductionist "materialist" or
"idealist" modes of explanation of sociological
The most important such indications are the
specification of the analytical dimensions of
beliefs of cultural visions that are constitutive
elements of the construction of social order and
institutional dynamics, and of the social pro-
cesses through which these aspects are trans-
formed into such constitutive elements and
become connected with institutional formations
and dynamics.
With respect to the first problem, the crucial
step is the recognition that beliefs or visions
become such constitutive elements of social
order, of institutional formations, by the trans-
formation of their contents into the basic
premises of different patterns of social interac-
tion, i.e., into systems of rules that address
themselves to the basic problem of such order.
The most important of these problems are those
already emphasized by the Founding Fathers of
Sociology, namely, the organization of the
social division of labor, the construction of trust
(or solidarity), the regulation of power, and the
construction of meaning. Such sets of rules
specify the principles that regulate different
arenas of social interaction, the boundaries and
criteria of membership in communities and
collectivities, and the basic contours of the
social centers and major institutional forma-
tions. Such premises constitute a distinct and
crucial analytical aspect of "culture" -different
from "beliefs," "contours," and even ideolo-
One of the major processes through which
beliefs are transformed into such regulative
principles is the crystallization of codes-very
much akin to Weber's concept of "economic
ethics." A Wirtschaftsethik does not connote
specific religious injunctions about proper behav-
ior in any given sphere, nor is it merely a logical
derivative of the intellectual contents of the
theology or philosophy predominant in a given
religion. Rather, such a Wirtschaftsethik (just as
a "status" or "political" ethic) is a code, a more
general "formal" orientation, which specifies
how to regulate the frameworks of concrete
social organizations and of institutional settings,
and the patterns of behavior and the range of
major strategies of action appropriate in these
different arenas.
Such transformations of religious and cultural
beliefs into "codes" or "ethics" constitutive of
the construction of social order have been
effected-as has been indicated by a series of
investigations of the social processes through
which the great religions have crystallized into
the Great Civilizations (Eisenstadt 1986,
1986a)-through the activities of visionaries
who were themselves transformed into new
types of autonomous elites. These elites formed
coalitions with rulers who were transformed
from "god-kings" into earthly rulers governing
under some heavenly mandate, and with other
groups as well, at the same time also forming
the nuclei of countercoalitions in which hetero-
doxies played a crucial role.
It is such coalitions and countercoalitions that
have activated the different processes of control
through which different "visions" are trans-
formed into civilizational premises and institu-
tional formations. The ways in which such
orientations or codes influence the shaping of
new institutional formations has been analyzed
in several recent works-especially those by
Poggi (1983), Zaret (1985), and Ben-David
(1985: his reexamination of the Merton thesis).
These works analyzed the importance, in the
formation and functioning of new institutions,
of the development of new patterns of motiva-
tion to undertake different activities, as well as
of the legitimation of new broader institutional
complexes. They have shown how such new
patterns of motivation and legitimation, incul-
cated through the promulgation of such codes,
are crystallized in different types of social
contexts-for instance, congregations or schools
-and are effected by secondary intellectuals-
preachers and teachers-who serve as the major
agents of socialization and communication and
play important roles in the various coalitions and
countercoalitions and the process of control
activated by them.
All such processes are not limited to the
exercise of power in the "narrow" political or
coercive sense. As even the more sophisticated
Marxists, especially Gramsci, have stressed,
they are much more pervasive, and include
many relatively autonomous symbolic aspects,
and represent different types of "ideal" and
"material" interests. It is such processes of
control, as well as the challenges to control-
often carried by heterodoxies-that develop
among other elites and broader strata, that shape
class relations and modes of production.2 It is
This point is recognized in some of the chapters in
Katznelson and Zolberg (1987), which in this way go
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also such processes, and the place of heterodox-
ies within them, that explain some of the
specifics of revolutions, as against the break-
down of regimes, and above all what Said
Arjomand has called their moral dynamics or
teleologies (Arjomand 1984; see also Eisenstadt
But different new types of civilizational
settings and social organization-e.g., those
that ushered in capitalism in the West, or the
Great Revolutions-are not "naturally" caused
by the basic tenets of any religion or premises of
interaction. They arose out of a variety of
contingent constellations, economic and politi-
cal trends, and ecological conditions, albeit in
their interrelation with religious tenets or
beliefs, with the basic civilizational premises,
and their institutional implications and carriers.
The visions, codes, and "ethics" carry within
them some of the potential developments of the
societies or civilizations in which they become
institutionalized. But the types of social organi-
zation that develop in different civilizations
were certainly not merely the direct result of the
basic inherent tendencies of any culture or
located in its basic premises.
Many such historical changes and construc-
tions of new institutional formations were
probably the outcome of the factors listed
recently by James G. March and Johann Olsen
(1984) in their analysis of changes in organiza-
tion-namely, the combination of basic institu-
tional and normative forms: processes of
learning and accommodation and different types
of decision making by individuals placed in
appropriate arenas of action-necessarily re-
sponding to a great variety of historical events.
But relatively similar types of contingent forces
could have different impacts in different civili-
zations, even if these shared many concrete
institutional or political-ecological settings, be-
cause of the differences in their premises.
The rise of new forms of social organization
and activities entailed new interpretations of
many basic tenets of the religious beliefs and
institutional premises. These new interpretations
greatly transformed many of the antecedent
basic tenets and institutions of these civiliza-
The importance of such institutional forces
brings us back to the major point of the first
group of works, with their strong emphasis on
institutional formations, power relations, inter-
societal relations, and historical contingencies.
beyond some of the earlier studies that have brought the
state back.
At the same time we have learned, however,
that it is only by combining them with the new
way of looking at the relations between culture
and social structure that their full implications
and impact can be understood.
The crucial problem of such analysis is how
the relatively similar historical factors interacted
in different situations, and above all how they
have been influenced by their premises or by the
model of social order, and impinged on such
models, changing some aspects of their basic
tenets and core symbols. One of the most
interesting of such comparisons is that between
Europe and India-also characterized by multi-
plicity of centers of power and decentralization
(Eisenstadt 1987). This comparison, which has
not been dealt with in most of the works referred
to above, indicates that the full impact of
multiple centers on the dynamics of different
civilizations can be understood only if some
aspects of the cultural dimension are taken into
account as well, and, needless to say, many
more illustrations can be given.
It is the combination of the strong points of
the different approaches analyzed here that
makes it possible to point in new directions.
Interestingly enough, it is only through such
combinations of these different perspectives,
with all their principled analytical implications,
that an additional drawback of most works in the
first group can be overcome: namely, their
inability to encompass in their analyses the
problem of the expansion of modernity beyond
the West. Most of these works stress the
uniqueness of the West as the single case of
"real" modernity or at least of capitalism, as did
the Founding Fathers, who of course did not
have to deal with the expansion of modernity
beyond the West and the consequent possible
development of different types of modern
societies or civilizations.
The only exception here is Japan, which some
of these works recognize as being similar to
Europe in developing a full-fledged modern
capitalist system. This similarity is explained-
especially by Baechler (1986; also Mutel 1986),
who confronts this problem head-on in terms of
parallel structural-functional factors-the plural-
ism of centers of power, subsumed under the
common rubric of "feudalism" (feodalite). But
no attention is paid in this work to the possible
specific characteristics of Japanese modernity,
nor, as we have hinted above, to the structural
similarities, as well as similarities in size,
between Europe and India.
These analyses pay even less attention to, or
are unable to deal with, the expansion of several
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crucial aspects of modernity, such as the
ideological tenets of egalitarianism and partici-
pation and the ways in which they have been
incorporated into the premises and dynamics of
these new modern societies. This is because
these works have thrown out the baby (the fact
of the expansion of many aspects of modern
ideology and the emergence of several different
modem societies) along with the bath water (the
older theories of unilinear evolution or of the
convergence of industrial societies).
In order to explain the multiple patterns of
modernity, however, we have to take into
account some recent works, such as Lucien
Pye's analysis (1986) of the political culture and
dynamics of different Asian societies, as well as
a more recent general reappraisal of political
development (Weiner and Huntington 1987).
These works have indicated the importance for
understanding the dynamics of different modem
or "modernizing" societies of the interaction of
the different cultural premises of the respective
societies; the common ideological dimension of
modernity (such as those of equality, of
participation, of some belief in technology); as
well as different economic, political, demo-
graphic, and ideological international systems-
and not only the international capitalist system
with its hegemonic and dependent units.
Such an approach may indeed make it
possible to analyze a variety of modern
societies, as well as, in a different vein,
historical societies, from the vantage point of
postmodernity-which does not assume that
they are all moving in the same direction, but
which at the same time allows us to indicate the
nature of some common future they may share,
and the different interpretation of the future that
will develop within each of them.
Other Literature Cited
Arjomand, Said A. 1984. The Shadow of God and the
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