In order to understand what post-modernity is, one has to understand what modernity, or modern society was! Somewhat confusingly ‘modern society’ refers to European society between roughly 1650- 1950 (ish) and post-modern society refers to European and many other ‘advanced’ ‘post-industrial’ societies from around 1950 (ish) onwards.
Post-Modernists argue that post-modern society is different to modern society, so much so that it requires new methods of study and new theoretical frameworks. Essentially, what is different, according to Post-Modernists, is that those stable institutions which used to bind us together have much less influence now, and with the rise of globalisation and New Media technologies, individuals are much more free to construct their culture and identity that they once were. Sociologists disagree as to exactly when post-modernism started. For some, the roots of it lie in early modernity, for others, post-modernism does not properly begin until the 1970s, still others argue (Giddens) that we don’t even live in a post-modern society at all!
Now it’s important for you to get your head around what post-modern society is, because theorists of post-modernity argue that the traditional structuralist theories of Marxism and feminism are no longer relevant and suggest new ways of ‘doing sociology’.
In order to understand what post-modern society is, one has to understand what modern society was
What was modernity?
Modernity is the term used by sociologists to describe the “modern” period which began in Europe several hundred years ago. Some of the key features of modern societies were:
Industrialisation and Capitalism
Economic production is industrial and capitalist, with social class as the main form of social division. Social classes are based on people’s social and economic position. Marx’s view for instance, was that industrial society people were divided into two main classes, those who owned businesses and those who sold their labour to them.
The growth of cities, or urbanisation. During the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries thousands of people moved to cities to find work and make their homes.
Nation States and Bureaucracy
A powerful central government and administration, known as a bureaucratic state. Local and central government have played an ever increasing part in our lives, the development of compulsory education, public housing and the welfare state for example.
Science and rationality
People’s knowledge is derived from scientific and rational thinking rather than religious faith, magic or superstition. During this period people have looked to science and logical thinking to explain the world. Natural disasters such as earthquakes, for example, have tended to be explained scientifically rather than as an “act of god”.
Progress through science and industry
A widely held faith in scientifically based progress. An associated view has been that the more we trust in science and technological progress, the better our society will be.
Most of the “great” sociologists have attempted to find ways of understanding “modernity” and the “great transformation” which created it. Writers such as Marx and Durkheim attempted to create theories and concepts which could help explain the workings of societies and answer basic questions such as “what holds societies together?” and “what makes societies change?”
What is Postmodernity?
Post-Modernity refers to the view that the institutions and ways of living characteristic of Modernity have been replaced to such a profound extent that our society is fundamentally different to the ‘modern’ society. In contrast post-modernism is a term that refers to new ways of thinking about thought. Post-modernists believe that knowledge itself needs to be understood in a different way to modernists sociologists such as Functionalists and Marxists. It follows that not all theorists of post-modernity are post-modernists.
Five Key features of the postmodern society
Postmodern society is:
- Media saturated and hyper-real
- Culturally diverse and hybrid.
A simple definition of Globalisation is the increasing connectedness between societies across the globe. Globalisation means there are more flows of information and ideas, money, and people moving across national boundaries.
The increasing importance of the mass media
The post-modern era has witnessed a huge expansion in media technology. The rise of digital media, especially the internet, has lead to a massive and unprecedented increase in the number of people using the media; a huge increase in the diversity of media products both factual and fictional; an increase in the number of people creating their own music, videos, profile sites and uploading them for public consumption, greater interactivity, more flexibility. All of this results in much more complex patterns of media usage, more picking and mixing
One consequence of this is that our society has an increased reliance on the media to tell us what is going on in the world. Some sociologists argue that the media creates something called ‘hyper reality’ where what we see in the media is different yet more real than reality. Baudrillard argues that the media coverage of war for example is different to reality, yet is the only reality most of us know.
New networks also emerge through the use of media, most obviously through profile sites such as Facebook. One consequence of this is the breakdown of local communities, as people increasingly network online in the privacy of their own homes, and don’t communicate with their next door neighbours.
A world in fragments
In post-modern society, the pace of change is much more rapid than in modern society. Post-modern society is thus more dynamic, more fluid if you like. The post-modern society doesn’t sit still, it is like a fidgeting child, and as a result, it lacks any coherent, stable social structure. This can be evidenced in the following areas:
Work: Gone are the days of a ‘Job for Life’, today is the era of the ‘portfolio worker’ who is much more likely to move jobs and change career several times throughout his or her working life. Working life is also characterised by much more uncertainty as businesses are quick to move to other regions or countries if they can find cheaper labour abroad. One very good illustrative example of this is Dyson, which recently closed down a factory in South Wales to seek cheaper labour in China. From the perspective of the South Wales workers, Dyson came and went in a very short time frame. Also, companies are now increasingly likely to employ workers through recruitment agencies which can fire at short notice, and much work is temporary, part time and characterised by flexible working hours. There are of course good sides and bad sides to all of this, but the upshot is that working life is much less stable than it used to be. See Richard Sennet: The Corrossion of Character chapter 1 and Polly Toynbe: Hard Work for an insight into the post-modern world of work.
Fashion and Music: Two of the most visible examples of the fast pace of change lies in the fashion and music industries, which are constantly evolving with new styles and musical forms constantly emerging, and with many artists having to continually reinvent themselves to stay in the spotlight. At the extreme end of this, the pop-idol genre of shows demonstrates how individuals are made stars for a month and then forgotten.
The breakdown of local communities: The increased flexibility of labour associated with the world of work means people move more often in their lifetimes, meaning that people are much less able to put down sable roots in their local communities. This has lead to a decline in ‘social capital’ (pretty much like trust) according to Robert Putnam. Look him up on Google, go on, you know you want to. Do something different instead of wasting your time surfing for information on…
The Consumer society
According to post-modernists one Fundamental difference between the post-modern society and modern society is that our society is consumer oriented, rather than work oriented. This means that consuming things, and leisure activities are more important today than work. The image of the post-modern society is thus one of a shopping mall, rather than a factory.
Post modernists argue that we live in a ‘Pick and mix’ society. Individuals today are free to pick their lifestyle and life course, from a wider range of options than ever before, just as if they were picking and choosing products in a super market! Importantly, post modernists argue that individuals are much less shaped by their class, gender and ethnic backgrounds today. Women, for example, are not expected to become housewives and mothers, just because they are women and work is much less gendered than it used to be. Society is no longer divided along class lines, or gender lines, or even ethnic lines. Being born working class, being born a woman, or being born black, does not, according to post-modernists, pre-determine one’s future, or shape one’s consciousness (identity) as it did in modernity (and the extent to which it did was often exaggerated by the classical sociologists).
Cultural diversity and hybridity
The ever increasing pace of globalisation has lead to an increase in cultural diversity and ‘hybridity’, which refers to the mixing of different cultural traditions. If we compare society today to that of 100 or even 50 years ago we see a bewildering increase in the diversity of social and cultural forms. Some of the more obvious examples include:
- Goods and services: A simple trip to the supermarket or shopping mall reveals a huge range of products one can buy, and the same is true of services.
- Fashion and Music: Once again, one can spend several hours in a week simply choosing what to buy or wear, or sorting MP3s on one’s MP3 player (once you’ve chosen one of those course!)
- Pretty much every other sphere of life is more diverse than it was 50 years ago: Education, work, family life…..
- In a post-modern society, we have much more consumerism choice, what are the consequences of this for individuals?
- Briefly explain two key features of the modern society
- What is ‘Globalisation’?
- What is meant by the term ‘hyperreality’?
- Briefly explain what is meant by the fragmented society
- What is cultural hybridity, illustrate with an example
Signposting and Related Posts
This material is most relevant to the social theories aspect of A-level Sociology.
Three examples of Postmodern Thinkers
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