"The air does not cease to have weight," writes Durkheim, "although we no longer feel that weight."(1) The point is, of course, how do we know that there is that thing called "air" out there if we do not feel its presence? What Durkheim was interested to show, indeed, was that those elements of reality that he came to call social facts(2) were out there, regardless of whether the individuals felt their presence or not. Actually, the individuals are almost never aware of the compelling presence of those social facts, which they have a tendency to take for granted. Sometimes, however, social facts appear unmistakably to the individual who is not even trained sociologically to discover that which is not so obvious. This awareness about the constrictive presence of social facts is often made possible by any kind of alteration to what we normally take for granted in the regularity of social events. Such breakdowns of normalcy may at times occur by accident -e.g., we make more eye contact than what is culturally prescribed with a stranger whom we mistakenly identify as an acquaintance. However, they invariably occur in the midst of drastic social changes, when completely new social situations put individuals together who are at a loss trying to find out what it is that is expected from them to do -e.g., a member of a traditionally superordinate group in society turns out to be subordinate to a boss who belongs to a socially inferior group.
If individuals learn to recognize that which is not so obvious when they face drastic social transformations, we can assert that it is also under such conditions that sociologists further their knowledge of society and its regularities. It is thus not surprising that the scientific study of society was born in the midst of the most drastic transformations ever experienced by humankind, the 19th Century passage from a social life dictated by tradition to one in which instrumentality came to prevail. The questions then became "what is happening to the individuals?" and "how can they cope with their pain?" The palliative offered, of course, depended upon that which social thinkers identified as the source of the pain. Virtually all classical sociologists -and a good many intellectuals who did not identify themselves, nor do we identify them today, as sociologists- have participated in this search for the causes and the cure for humankind during the 1800s and early 1900s. Thus, Karl Marx wrote about alienation, as the effect of the separation between the worker and the product of his labor under capitalist labor relations. Durkheim, in turn, was concerned with anomie, a pathological -and, thus, temporary- characteristic of societies in which the division of labor does not evolve naturally, but may be forced by unequal social relations among classes. In the same line, Weber was preoccupied with the fall of substantial rationality as a logical outcome of the process of rationalization in the modern world. Sigmund Freud, in turn, identified neurosis as the malady of the modern times.
If it is not surprising that the scientific study of society was born in the midst of a profound breakdown of social normalcy, it follows that virtually all classical social thinkers were able to appreciate the relevance of social change as an object of study. Indeed, the study of social change constitutes the main object in the sociological theory and inquiry of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim. For Marx, the analysis of social change is present in an evolutionary model that contends that human history has seen a succession of modes of production -namely, tribal, ancient, feudal, and capitalist- and that the present capitalist mode of production is bound to be superseded by the socialist mode of production.
For Durkheim, social change is represented by transformations in the social morphology -or the structure of social relations that links individuals into a coherent entity,...