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Global generations: social change in the twentieth century

The British Journal of Sociology
Volume 56 No 4 December 2005
pages 559-577


The concept of generation within sociology has until recently been a marginal area of interest. However, various demographic, cultural and intellectual developments have re-awakened an interest in generations that started with the classic essay by Karl Mannheim. To date, the sociological literature has generally conceptualized generations as nationally bounded entities. In this paper we suggest that the sociology of generations should develop the concept of global generations. This conceptual enhancement is important because the growth of global communications technology has enabled traumatic events, in an unparalleled way, to be experienced globally. The late nineteenth and early twentieth century was the era of international generations, united through print media, and the mid-twentieth century saw the emergence of transnational generations, facilitated by new broadcast communications. However, the latter part of the twentieth century is the period of global generations, defined by electronic communications technology, which is characterized, uniquely, by increasing interactivity. The 1960s generation was the first global generation, the emergence of which had world-wide consequences; today with major developments in new electronic communications, there is even more potential for the emergence of global generations that can communicate across national boundaries and through time. If in the past historical traumas combined with available opportunities to create national generations, now globally experienced traumas, facilitated by new media technologies, have the potential for creating global generational consciousness. The media have become increasingly implicated in the formation of generational movements. Because we are talking about generations in the making rather than an historical generation, this article is necessarily speculative; it aims to provoke discussion and establish a new research agenda for work on generations.

Keywords: Bourdieu, Mannheim, cultural trauma, generational consciousness, generation, globalization

June Edmunds
Development Studies, University of Cambridge, and

Bryan S Turner
Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore