The concept of destabilization implies that there is something that is destabilized. What, then, is this “something”? It should reasonably be an “order” of some kind. But what kind of “order”? The Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman argues that the current age is one of “floating modernity,” meaning that flexibility and mobility now permeate societal and private life. Employment contracts are becoming increasingly short-term; uncertainty—in both positive and negative meanings—has become epidemic; and the belief of permanent happiness is being replaced by the belief of episodic enjoyment. Changing jobs, once looked down upon, is now seen as something positive and good for personal development. Temporary relationships have gained an increased legitimacy, with divorce becoming a part of everyday life. During early modernity, workers started their careers at one company and often ended them at the same place. In an era of floating modernity, however, where one starts one’s career is no longer a guide to where it will end.
From a societal standpoint, destabilization thus means that power elites become less and less permanent, and that power becomes more difficult to define. This change in power relations means that individuals’ identities vary more and more over time, and that the dominant norms place the temporary, not the permanent, in a primary position.
What are the causes of destabilization? The communications revolution has affected destabilization and individualization in a number of ways—by changing the significance of the territory, by improving the possibilities for network cooperation both within and outside of nation-state borders, and by increasing the significance of innovation and flexibility as a means of productivity and competition. The place of the individual in social, political, and economic networks determines the extent of power that the individual possesses or might exercise. Since the networks are dynamic (or instable), and since individuals can move in and out of these networks, there are no longer any stable power elites. Characteristics belonging to the individual, such as knowledge and education, thus become decisive for corporations and for the economy. Whether a specific individual fits into one of these networks is determined by the individual’s personal characteristics, knowledge profile, originality, creativity, and entrepreneurial skills. Because innovation, creativity, and specialized knowledge form the basis of productivity, every supplier of knowledge becomes a unique carrier of surplus generating competencies. This creates power positions and self-interests, and it helps the information producers become global actors. In addition, shortsighted profits from the stock and currency markets become more important than long-term direct investments. Essentially, cultures are no longer created and shaped by people who share the same time and space, but by individuals who construct their own values on the basis of their own experiences in a world that is constantly being rearranged. In modern parlance, one “is” one’s experiences, and these experiences give rise to the self.
It is fruitful to analyze destabilization in terms of three concepts: power, identity, and norms. Power elites have become changeable and difficult to define, and nation-states are being challenged by different groups of actors who create temporary alliances to further specific issues. Within nation-states, traditional power elites are being challenged by loosely organized networks, which also create temporary alliances.
In addition, the identities of individuals vary more and more over time. This is especially true for those groups of people who actively use the possibilities that the communicational revolution and network society creates. The norms emphasize the short term instead of the long term, impressions instead of experiences, and freedom of action instead of predictability or safety.
As with the concept of individualization, “power,” “identity,” and “norms” are not at the same analytical level. Changes in identity and norms must be considered as part of the destabilitzation process implying that power relations have become more diffuse and varying. Identity changes in pace with changes in power relations, and the modern emphasis on the short term, happenings, and freedom of action in societal norms is connected with the modern transience of power.
SEE ALSO Civil War; Creativity; Elites; Identity; Norms; Political Instability, Indices of; Uncertainty
Bauman, Zygmunt. 2001. The Individualized Society. Malden, MA: Polity.
Florida, Richard. 2004. The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community, and Everyday Life. New York: Basic Books.
Inglehart, Robert. 1997. Modernization and Postmodernization: Cultural, Economic, and Political Change in 43 Societies. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.