What Does “Contemporary Society” Mean?

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You may have heard the term “contemporary society,” but what exactly does that mean? After all, what counts as “contemporary,” exactly? Moreover, what are the hallmarks of a contemporary society? Needless to say, there’s a lot to wonder about. 

With this in mind, we’re taking a closer look into these questions, as well as some of the characteristics, issues, and hallmarks that the study of contemporary society focuses on.

What Is a Contemporary Society?

According to Dictionary.com, “contemporary” is defined as “existing, occurring, or living at the same time; belonging to the same time.” In essence, the term “contemporary society” simply refers to the society we live in at the present moment.

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It doesn’t necessarily refer to one particular group of people or culture, but more to the overall, current state of humanity. While the world is made up of a variety of different countries with various political systems and sets of values, “contemporary society” is an umbrella term used to refer to the overall social trends of today.

You’ll often find the term used in sociology as a shorthand way to separate our own time period from those of the past. By studying the world’s overall state of affairs and cultural shifts, sociologists attempt to understand modern society, how it works, and the direction it’s heading.

Contemporary Society Characteristics

Some of the characteristics of contemporary society that sociologists might explore include trends that separate our current society from those of the past. For example, globalization has changed the way nations connect, interact and work together. Some interesting trends worth delving into include the following: 

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  • The Rise of Technology: The internet alone has led to a massive shift around the globe. These days, it’s possible to receive breaking news from around the world at a moment’s notice. Additionally, social media has drastically transformed the way we connect since it provides folks with the chance to share thoughts, information, opinions, and connections with people outside of their local communities.
  • An Expanding Global Economy: While trade between countries has been common for centuries, it’s now become the norm on a whole new level. For example, outsourcing work to different countries is now a common business practice, especially among the large corporations that tend to dominate today’s market.

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  • The Growing Dominance of Progressive, Secular, and Individualist Values: In many countries, the days are long gone when women were expected to stay home and raise children, while men were the sole breadwinners. In addition to this sexist notion, other old ideas, such as rigid gender norms, class structures and social expectations, have been replaced. Now, folks take a more individualistic approach to life. Compared to the commonly held views of just a few decades ago, contemporary society has begun embracing diversity and equality — even if equity still feels a long way off. This broadening of perspectives has led to an even larger push for civil rights, racial justice and more. 

Contemporary Society Examples

The study of contemporary society also looks at key changes that influence everything from our health to the way we live. Some examples include things like:

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  • Longer Life Expectancy: If you were to average out how long people in countries around the world were expected to live in 1950, you’d discover that the average life expectancy was only around 46 years old. Back then, only the richest people in the wealthiest countries could expect to live long enough to see their 70s. As of 2015, however, things have come a long way. Due to innovations in medicine and improved standards of living for some folks, the global average life expectancy had risen to 72.5 years of age. 

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  • Increase in Literacy: A global rise in literacy is another key element in contemporary societies around the globe. While only around 12% of the entire world population could read and write in 1820, the rate had risen to 86% by 2016. Of course, this is just one metric used to measure education and how it’s valued. It should be noted that some cultures and peoples value oral histories and oral storytelling. 

Contemporary Society Issues

As at every other point in history, contemporary society is not without its challenges. In order to gain a true understanding of a time period, sociologists must also examine its social issues and the ways in which it fought to overcome them. 

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Without a doubt, contemporary society is marked by the following issues: 

Social Issues

  • LGBTQ+ rights
  • Police brutality
  • Systemic racism
  • Racial profiling
  • Gender equality
  • Xenophobia
  • Immigrant rights
  • Indigenous rights
  • Sex workers’ rights
  • Climate crisis

Economic Issues

  • World poverty
  • The rise of large corporations and the decline of small businesses
  • Income inequality
  • Resource distribution and depletion

Political Issues

  • Drug decriminalization and legalization
  • Gun control
  • Universal healthcare 
  • Student loan debt forgiveness 

Science and Technology in a Contemporary Society

Moreover, two of the hallmark aspects of contemporary society today are the shift toward rational, scientific thought and the global acceleration of technology. Both have irrevocably impacted society as a whole — in both positive and questionable (if not outrightly negative) ways. As one paper published by National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) points out, “By making life easier, science has given [hu]man[s] the chance to pursue societal concerns such as ethics, aesthetics, education, and justice; to create cultures; and to improve human conditions.” In many ways, technology has helped us connect with others and democratized idea-sharing. 

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While the importance of science and technology in contemporary society can’t be overstated, we also have to examine the other side of the science and technology coin. Sociologists study questions such as:

  • Has the popularity of social media created a technology-addicted culture?
  • If so, how has this affected the way that we interact with one another in person? Does social media make us better connected or has it led to a rise in anti-social behavior?
  • What effect has the rise of technology had on the workplace? In a post-COVID-19 world, will work from home become more of the norm? How will this affect feelings of isolation? Will it lead to more depression if it causes a decrease in human contact?

By studying these questions and those like them, sociologists are able to gain better insight into the effects of contemporary society on the individual. From there, they can then predict the direction of future cultural and societal trends.

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