Before we can answer the above question, we must first establish what is meant by ‘progress’. The term carries more weight than it first appears, as it closely relates to development, civilization and modernity. Development when talking about society represents the world as a “state of linear progression” in which the Northern part of the globe is advanced, and the South “locked into static traditionalism” (K.Gardner, D.Lewis). In virtually all it’s uses, progress is used to imply some form of positive change or development.
If we believe that northern societies offer a better way of life then we must see the idea of modernity as an optimistic concept. The theory of modernization suggests that inevitably, all countries will be subjected to its effects and therefore, experience economic and social growth. However, the question now arises as to whether or not these societies affected by modernization are really better off. What will they gain, and perhaps just as importantly, what will be lost by joining the western world?
Western society primarily comes from the rise of capitalism and the development from hunter-gatherers through to successful agricultural businesses. Weber simplifies these developments by categorizing fragments of history into ‘ideal types’. Therefore, the progress goes as follows: hunter gatherer societies merely hunt food to feed themselves and their family, this then developed into pastoralists who keeps their own live stock resulting in first signs of ownership. Finally, pastoralists develop into agriculturist who realize the potential in trading goods which evidently leads to cash economy and an early form of capitalism.
Through commitment to progress, contemporary western society has developed in many ways, from the rise of technology to industrialization. However, it is not merely developments alone that cause the change in society it is the social effects that they produce. Firstly, we need to discuss the things that western society has gained from progress. For example, western society offers us choices and more importantly the ability to free ourselves from social fixity. We are no longer restricted to the class we are born into. In non-western societies there is little or no room for individual progress, where as in the west, there are frameworks in place which provide us all with the opportunity to climb social ladders through education and trade.
These frameworks also provide us with the division of labor, a separation between work and home life. This has gained Enlightenment philosophers of the late 18th century believed that industrialized western life would lead us to a world in which “the more we have the advance of science, the more we discover about our own history, the more we can control our own future” (Anthony Giddens 1999). This reflects the Marxist theory that we should not merely “interpret the world, the point is to change it”(Marx).
The enlightenment plays a huge role in the progression of modern societies, as it looked towards ‘reason’ instead of religion. We would no longer be imprisoned for not going to church for example, because through this progression we have gained freedom of thought and therefore individuality. This new freedom is regulated by the rise of nation states and democracy. This has been a positive gain, in the sense that enforces laws that regulate societies. Modern societies have created these political units in which, use of violence is strictly regulated and which, at the same time, are organized for the use of violence against outside groups. (Giddens. A). These laws and regulations aim to prevent us from victimization and protect us from the people who break these boundaries.
Along with above examples of progression, we have gained an awareness of diversity through cultural integration. Western culture is far more diverse as we live along side people who come from different cultures and religions. This has broadened our social norms dramatically. We no longer compare ourselves to our immediate surrounding, we now look across cultures and classes to gain our understanding, hence we are accepting ourselves as “individual human species, rather than part of a collective group or tribe”. (Murray Bookchin 1912)
Our wider understanding has not only allowed us to improve but also to prevent and predict problems that arise in society. For example, through our commitment to progress our understanding of medicine has improved dramatically, we can now cure hundreds of diseases that still pose a serious threat to non-developed countries. This knowledge also allows us to prepare for such problems. For example, lending aid to countries that have become victims of natural disasters or enforcing birth control on over populated societies.