You are on page 1of 3

Francis Fukuyama

The Great Disruption: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order
New York: The Free Press, 1999. xii + 354 p. $26.00.

Big-picture social science aims to lend order to social facts, finding or refinding patterns in them
and telling stories about them. The facts need to be important, the stories interesting. Francis
Fukuyama is an accomplished practitioner in this domain. The Great Disruption, like his earlier
books, is directed at a wide audience. It should be of more than passing interest to social
demographers.

The plot line is simple. A great disruption in Western society has occurred; the author
characterizes it. There are competing explanations for it, each of which the author finds
unsatisfactory; he proposes his own. The disruption needs to be healed: history suggests that this
healing may be largely a spontaneous process, but it is also likely to require deliberate efforts at
social innovation; the author makes a few general suggestions about what might be done.

In the middle of this argument the author takes the opportunity to introduce some
contemporary ideas in social science: kernels of theory and gobs of evidence that might be drawn
on in understanding what is going on and predicting how matters might develop. These are
popularizations rather than original contributions, but are well done and sustain interest in
themselves. However, they are not in fact much drawn on. Indeed, the single chapter on "what
comes next" is quite perfunctory. The reader, it might be said, has been shown the facts, given
some tools, and now should go away and use them to fashion the remedy—or simply to be better
informed in watching the repair take place unaided.

So much for the skeleton; now for the flesh. The disruption of the title refers to a set of
changes in Western societies observed starting in the 1960s: "increasing levels of crime and
social disorder, the decline of families and kinship as a source of social cohesion, and decreasing
levels of trust" (p. 60). The demographic component of the disruption is seen in falling marriage
rates, falling fertility rates and at the same time many more extramarital births, and sharply
higher divorce rates. Fukuyama sees all these as manifestations of a decline in social capital.

Social capital, roughly speaking, is the resources that inhere in social relations. The
concept was examined thoroughly in a recent issue of this journal by Nan Marie Astone and
colleagues (vol. 25, no. 1), where it was traced back to George Homans's 1950 monograph The
Human Group. Fukuyama finds a much earlier use of the term—in 1916, in an article on school
community centers by Lyda Judson Hanifan. But the current popularity of the concept is owed
mainly to Pierre Bourdieu, James S. Coleman, and Robert D. Putnam.

Analytically, it is a rather critical question, as Astone et al. point out, whether social
capital is a characteristic of an individual or a group. They hold strongly that it should be the
former, and criticize Coleman for fudging the issue. For Fukuyama social capital is more the glue
of society, a measure of societal health. It is "a set of informal values or norms shared among
members of a group that permits cooperation among them" (p. 16). This was a theme developed
in his last book, Trust. It is also the sense in which the term is used in the influential writings on
Italy and the United States by Robert Putnam, and in the current debate over the empirical issue
of whether social capital in the US has in fact been declining.
Fukuyama sees societies as being in the business of maintaining systems of norms—
indeed, that is essentially what societies are. It is a dynamic enterprise, entailing constant
adaptation and adjustment to changing circumstances. Sometimes those changes may be so
abrupt or severe as to undermine or destroy the norms governing some area of behavior, perhaps
many areas. But the same societal adjustment processes are engaged—now in the task of repair
and restoration, what Fukuyama calls the task of renorming. There is a kind of institutional
homeostasis at work, not with any particular structural outcome in view (it is not a teleological
process) but influenced by enduring human qualities and values that are probably hard-wired into
our species. As hints on how renorming might work, in the middle part of the book, titled On the
Genealogy of Morals, the reader meets in short compass the incest taboo, iterated prisoners'
dilemmas, bonobo society, self-organization, the logic of collective action, the Hayekian
extended order, and various other ideas that could bear on natural and spontaneous sources of
social order.

How reasonable is a faith in self-correcting mechanisms? Fukuyama's main instance of a
successful renorming is the way he perceives that Victorian values brought back into line the
disarray of early industrial society. A striking graph shows the incidence of crime in England
peaking in the 1840s and thereafter steadily dropping. In both Britain and the United States,
"masses of rude, illiterate agricultural workers and urban poor were converted into what we now
understand as the working class" (p. 268)—disciplined, washed, and sober. Much of this change
was a "moral renovation" brought about through inculcation of new values. It was associated
with a widespread increase in religious observance, notably in sectarian Protestantism. Overt
social control, through establishment of modern police forces and a kind of early zero-tolerance
policy, also helped.

Fukuyama sees the currently disrupted order as already embarking on the path to
reconstitution. Crime is down, family values are being reasserted, the era of ever-expanding
individualism is ending. As in the Victorian case, religion is held to be playing an important role
in the process. But now it is religion as ritual and tradition rather than belief: a benign, social
religiosity impelled by the desire for community and the wish to instill the right values in
children. (This might seem a more plausible prospect in the US than in Europe—of a measure
with the cynic's one-time view of Anglicanism as the Tory party at prayer.)

Familism in itself would presumably help to sustain fertility, but Fukuyama makes no
claims in this regard. A stable, renormed social order, replete with social capital, might turn out
to be compatible with high rates of childlessness and single-person households and total fertility
nearer a one than a two child average. His modest hope is for "cultural adaptations that will make
information age societies more hospitable to children" (p. 276). Economic trends may help in
this, through the shift from Taylorite working conditions to telecommuting. In addition, he
suggests, the income and work status forgone by women through childrearing will seem less
serious as men too increasingly lose security of employment and routinely come to experience
downward as well as upward mobility over the course of their working lives.

Fukuyama concludes by contrasting the unidirectionality of history in the political and
economic sphere—culminating, as The End of History argued, in Western-style liberal
democracy—with the cyclical nature of history in the social and moral sphere, "with social order
ebbing and flowing over the space of multiple generations" (p. 282). Historically, fertility could
be viewed as if it were an incidental part of the first sphere; demographers have yet to come to
grips with fertility as part of the second.

Geoffrey McNicoll
Australian National University
and Population Council