The Illusion of Progress

A detailed and historically based investigation of models of social progress.

Progress is something we tend to take as unproblematic in our day to day lives, yet for the sociologist, it is anything but. This paper intends to explicate where our ideas regarding social progress originate and where they are headed. Are things better today than in the past? Before we are capable of meaningfully questioning our current state of affairs, we must first immerse ourselves in the question – “what does it mean to progress?”
“Sociology took its first steps following the Enlightenment. Embodied in Marx, Durkheim and Weber, the “Enlightenment Paradigm” has been an unyielding and defining presence in the discipline. More recently, sociology has appeared to have developed a kind of discursive “hangover” from this phase in its maturity. It is this hangover that is to be the topic of this essay. To begin, we must consider what the Enlightenment Paradigm means for sociology, what sociology was originally defined as being. Then, we must examine the pivotal idea in dispute, progress. To have a full grasp on this battle over an idea, we must look at progress as both Enlightenment and post-modern thinkers have understood it. Also worthy of note is Immanuel Wallerstein’s world system theory, which posits progress as deeply relational, and this too will be explored. It is only from this foundation that we can see what sociology has retrieved from the Enlightenment, and can offer us for the future.”