Social Interaction and the Development of Knowledge

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Social development theory - Wikipedia

In the Middle Ages , efforts at scientific progress were few, mainly because there was no effective system to preserve and disseminate knowledge. Since there was no organized protection for patent rights, scientists and inventors were secretive about observations and discoveries. Establishment of scientific associations and scientific journals spurred the exchange of knowledge and created a written record for posterity. Technological development depends on social organizations. Nobel laureate economist Arthur Lewis observed that the mechanization of factory production in England—the Industrial Revolution —was a direct result of the reorganization of English agriculture.

Enclosure of common lands in England generated surplus income for farmers. That extra income generated additional raw materials for industrial processing, and produced greater demand for industrial products that traditional manufacturing processes could not meet. The opening of sea trade further boosted demand for industrial production for export. Factory production increased many times when production was reorganized to use steam energy, combined with moving assembly lines, specialization, and division of labor.

Thus, technological development was both a result of and a contributing factor to the overall development of society.

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Individual scientific inventions do not spring out of the blue. They build on past accomplishments in an incremental manner, and give a conscious form to the unconscious knowledge that society gathers over time. As pioneers are more conscious than the surrounding community, their inventions normally meet with initial resistance, which recedes over time as their inventions gain wider acceptance. If opposition is stronger than the pioneer, then the introduction of an invention gets delayed. In medieval times, when guilds tightly controlled their members, medical progress was slow mainly because physicians were secretive about their remedies.

When Denis Papin demonstrated his steam engine , German naval authorities refused to accept it, fearing it would lead to increased unemployment. John Kay , who developed a flying shuttle textile loom, was physically threatened by English weavers who feared the loss of their jobs. He fled to France where his invention was more favorably received. The widespread use of computers and application of biotechnology raises similar resistance among the public today. Regardless of the response, technological inventions occurs as part of overall social development, not as an isolated field of activity.

The concept of inherent limits to development arose mainly because past development was determined largely by availability of physical resources. Humanity relied more on muscle-power than thought-power to accomplish work. That is no longer the case. Today, mental resources are the primary determinant of development. Where people drove a simple bullock cart, they now design ships and aircraft that carry huge loads across immense distances.

Humanity has tamed rivers, cleared jungles and even turned arid desert lands into cultivable lands through irrigation. By using intelligence, society has turned sand into powerful silicon chips that carry huge amounts of information and form the basis of computers. Since there is no inherent limit to the expansion of society's mental resources, the notion of limits to growth cannot be ultimately binding.

Society's developmental journey is marked by three stages: physical, vital, and mental. All three are present in any society at time. One of them is predominant while the other two play subordinate roles. The term 'vital' denotes the emotional and nervous energies that empower society's drive towards accomplishment and express most directly in the interactions between human beings. Before the full development of mind, it is these vital energies that predominate in human personality and gradually yield the ground as the mental element becomes stronger.

The speed and circumstances of social transition from one stage to another varies. The physical stage is characterized by the domination of the physical element of the human personality.

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Knowledge acquisition as a social phenomenon

People follow tradition strictly and there is little innovation and change. Land is the main asset and productive resource during the physical stage and wealth is measured by the size of land holdings. This is the agrarian and feudal phase of society. Inherited wealth and position rule the roost and there is very little upward mobility. Feudal lords and military chiefs function as the leaders of the society. Commerce and money play a relatively minor role. As innovative thinking and experimental approaches are discouraged, people follow tradition unwaveringly and show little inclination to think outside of established guidelines.

Occupational skills are passed down from parent to child by a long process of apprenticeship. Guilds restrict the dissemination of trade secrets and technical knowledge. The Church controls the spread of new knowledge and tries to smother new ideas that does not agree with established dogmas. The physical stage comes to an end when the reorganization of agriculture gives scope for commerce and industry to expand.

This happened in Europe during the 18th century when political revolutions abolished feudalism and the Industrial Revolution gave a boost to factory production. The shift to the vital and mental stages helps to break the bonds of tradition and inject new dynamism in social life. The vital stage of society is infused with dynamism and change.

The vital activities of society expand markedly. Society becomes curious, innovative and adventurous. During the vital stage emphasis shifts from interactions with the physical environment to social interactions between people.

Society, Culture, and Social Interaction

Trade supplants agriculture as the principal source of wealth. The dawning of this phase in Europe led to exploratory voyages across the seas leading to the discovery of new lands and an expansion of sea trade. Equally important, society at this time began to more effectively harness the power of money.


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Commerce took over from agriculture, and money replaced land as the most productive resource. The center of power shifted from the aristocracy to the business class, which employed the growing power of money to gain political influence. During the vital stage, the rule of law becomes more formal and binding, providing a secure and safe environment for business to flourish.

Banks, shipping companies and joint-stock companies increase in numbers to make use of the opportunities. Fresh innovative thinking leads to new ways of life that people accept as they prove beneficial. Science and experimental approaches begin to make a headway as the hold of tradition and dogma weaken. Demand for education rises. As the vital stage matures through the expansion of the commercial and industrial complex, surplus income arises, which prompts people to spend more on items so far considered out of reach. People begin to aspire for luxury and leisure that was not possible when life was at a subsistence level.

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This stage has three essential characteristics: practical, social, and political application of mind. The practical application of mind generates many inventions. The social application of mind leads to new and more effective types of social organization. The political application leads to changes in the political systems that empower the populace to exercise political and human rights in a free and democratic manner.

These changes began in the Renaissance and Enlightenment, and gained momentum in the Reformation , which proclaimed the right of individuals to relate directly to God without the mediation of priests. The political application of mind led to the American and French Revolutions , which produced writing that first recognized the rights of the common man and gradually led to the actual enjoyment of these rights. Organization is a mental invention.

Therefore it is not surprising that the mental stage of development is responsible for the formulation of a great number of organizational innovations. Huge business corporations have emerged that make more money than even the total earnings of some small countries.

Global networks for transportation and communication now connect the nations of the world within a common unified social fabric for sea and air travel, telecommunications, weather reporting and information exchange. In addition to spurring technological and organizational innovation, the mental phase is also marked by the increasing power of ideas to change social life. Ethical ideals have been with humanity since the dawn of civilization. But their practical application in daily social life had to wait for the mental stage of development to emerge.

The 20th century truly emerged as the century of the common man. Political, social, economic and many other rights were extended to more and more sections of humanity with each succeeding decade. The relative duration of these three stages and the speed of transition from one to another varies from one society to another. However broadly speaking, the essential features of the physical, vital and mental stages of development are strikingly similar and therefore quite recognizable even in societies separated by great distance and having little direct contact with one another.

Moreover, societies also learn from those who have gone through these transitions before and, therefore, may be able to make the transitions faster and better. When the Netherlands introduced primary education in , it was a pioneering initiative. When Japan did the same thing late in the 19th century, it had the advantage of the experience of the USA and other countries. When many Asian countries initiated primary education in the s after winning independence, they could draw on the vast experience of more developed nations.


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This is a major reason for the quickening pace of progress. Natural development is distinct from development by government initiatives and planning. Natural development is the spontaneous and unconscious process of development that normally occurs. Planned development is the result of deliberate conscious initiatives by the government to speed development through special programs and policies.