Post modernists argue that we need new ways of thought to understand and conceptualise this new ‘post-modern society’ – the age old theories of modernity are no longer relevant!
Lyotard – the abandonment of the Enlightenment Project
Lyotard refers to post-modernism as‘incredulity towards metanarratives’. A metanarrative is a theory that holds that it is the universal truth, or it contains within it a great hope of salvation if only everyone would go along with it! Science, religion, political ideologies are all metanarratives. According to Lyotard, in the postmodern world, people have seen all of these metanarratives turn to ashes, the promises they once held have turned out to be disastrous.
The greater diversity and freedom of the post-modern age means that individuals abandon the search for one universal truth. Lyotard argues that this is a good thing, because the search for universal truths has led to such terror and oppression in the past. Hence post-modern diversity is good because it should promote tolerance!
In a nutshell, Modernists tend to believe that if we can find the truth, then we can apply this to society and it will enable us to be free; while according to post-modernists, in order to be free, we need to be liberated from the concept of truth!
Michel Foucault1 – Knowledge is not objective – rather it is distorted by power
Michel Foucault argued that the modernist Enlightenment project is a myth – throughout history knowledge has not been objective and it has not necessarily been used to make the world a better place. This is because the knowledge we collect about the world is shaped by the subjective views and values of those with power. Foucault illustrates this through exploring how societies have dealt with insanity and criminality throughout history. He basically argues that those in power define their own behaviours and values as ‘normal’ –and then those most unlike them as mentally ill or criminal – once these basic categories have been established, experts then emerge to construct ‘expert knowledge’ about why people are insane and how they are best treated. The labels ‘sane’ and ‘insane’ according to Foucault are subjective.
To illustrate this, in the 1940s the social norm was to have children within marriage. Women who had children outside of wedlock were labelled as insane, and sometimes put in mental institutions and subjected to study by experts. The point here though is that there is nothing objective, value free, or progressive about the original categories of ‘sane’ and insane’ – these are simply a function of power.
Jean Baudrillard – Hyper reality is more important than actual reality
The post-modern era has witnessed a huge expansion in media technology. 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. Jean Baudrillard argues that the media creates something called ‘hyper reality’ where what we see in the media is different from and 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. The media is thus a world different from reality, and thus a modernist project that focuses on how ‘reality’ influences people’s lives and how we should try to ‘improve’ society seams irrelevant in a society where most people have not lived experience of this social reality.
A Sociology of Post-Modernity
Post-modernism has influence Sociology….
For Zygmunt Bauman2, the central feature of post-modern society is that we are all consumers. Rather than basing our identities around work (and hence class), we are much more likely to define ourselves through the products that we buy. It follows that post-modern sociology is much more focussed on how people use consumption to define and understand themselves. There is much more of a focus on how people construct their identities in a world of huge potentiality. Post-modern sociology is thus much more interested in describing the diversity of life and looking at how people cope in the hectic, post-modern world around us, and much less interested in social structures and how these shape people’s identities. The Sociology of post-modernity is also very interested in deviance and subcultures and in individuals and groups transgress ‘normative boundaries’
Transgression….. Because post-modern society is different, and as culture has become more important, it means that new areas have opened up for study. Such new areas include studies of rave culture, the study of new genders and the development of ‘queer theory’, and the emergence of cultural and media studies as sub- disciplines of sociology.
Narrative – Much of this new post-modern sociology limits itself to a description of the ways of life of these groups, and at best tentative attempts to theorise specific to that group under study. Post-modernists are not interested in constructing generalise able social theory as they believe such a mission is flawed.
1 Strictly a post-structuralist, but for A level we can let that distinction pass!