Presentation Details

The Second International Conference on the Future of the Book

Different Books, Different Contexts, Different Futures: A Sociological Essay in Social Change

George Primov.

It seems to me that if we are to speculate about the future of books, we must at the very least distinguish between two key lines of inquiry regarding books:
• Their social functions
• Their relative technological efficiency

Inquiry regarding their functionality speaks to the variety of social uses and meanings which books have in contemporary societies and of the relative importance of these uses and meanings within specific social contexts.

Inquiry regarding their technological efficiency seeks to evaluate their efficiency in achieving the social functions for which they are put to use, relative to other available technologies.

These two lines of inquiry can be conceptualized as standing in a simple means-end relationship to each other where the technological merits of the printed media can be conceptualized as a one means for achieving diverse social ends.

The future of different types of books, then, should depend on the specific social context in which their fortunes are being forecast, on the range and relative importance of the social uses and meanings which they have within that context, and on their relative efficiency in achieving and maintaining these social goals relative to alternate technologies available within that context.

We can construct, for heuristic purposes, a very simplistic matrix for predicting the social longevity of books under different contextual conditions.

A Contextually important uses
More efficient technologies available

B Contextually unimportant uses
More efficient technologies available

C Contextually important uses
More efficient technologies unavailable

D Contextually unimportant uses
More efficient technologies unavailable

This matrix suggests four different possible outcomes and, thus, four different predictions. However, social reality is seldom this simple. Social importance and technological efficiency are tricky concepts; they can change in value, direction and intensity. The notion of a social context is also very slippery. Furthermore, the book, as an item of material culture, has become an important social end in itself; we value books in ways that we do not value hammers.

The sociological literature on social change can be of some help here. We can examine each cell of the matrix against the backdrop of what we know about social and cultural change and develop predictive arguments for each cell.

In this manner, we can develop different scenarios about how different types of books might fare in the different social contexts of the brave new postmodern technological world.


George Primov  (United States)
Lecturer in Sociology
Department of Sociology
University of Miami

I was born in Bulgaria and raised in Venezuela. I went to school in Barbados for two years and then moved to the U.S. in 1957.

  • Future
  • Alternative technologies
  • Social change
  • Social context

(30 min. Conference Paper, English)