‘Post-modernity’ refers to the view that the institutions and ways of living characteristic of modernity have been replaced by new institutional features to such a profound extent that it is no longer plausible to look at the 21st century as a continuation of modernity.
Postmodernism is a term that refers to new ways of thinking about thought – to new ways of understanding ideas, beliefs and knowledge, rather than to new ways of living and organising social affairs.
From Modernity to Post-modernity?
There are many social problems which Marx, Weber and Durkheim did not address, but need addressing today – such as the environmental crisis, and the risks surrounding new scientific and technological advances.
Social Life in the Twenty-First Century
What have been the dramatic changes which have led some to talk of contemporary life as a time of post-modernity?
Globalisation is one of the most fundamental changes which according to Jones has five key characteristics
- The rise of global capitalism
- The declining power of the nation state
- Population growth and urbanisation
- The globalisation of markets and marketing
- The rise of the network (information) society.
Identity in post-modernity
Postmodern analysis of social life tend to focus on issues of identity. In the past, work was one of the most important aspects of an individual’s identity – people tended to see themselves as what they did for a living – and two key features of modernity in terms of identity were class membership and trades union membership.
For may post-modernists, one of the central features of post-modernity is they way work and production have given way to consumption as the lynch pin of social cohesion and as the source of individual identity.
This is linked to the fact that jobs have become less stable, the idea of a job for life has disappeared, and thus work no longer provides an ‘identity’ we can just slip into.
As a result, we need to be more creative in the way we construct ourselves, and we do this through the consumption of consumer goods, to the extent that consumption has become the central feature of our existence and the main means of expressing who we are.
This has two major consequences – Firstly, it produces a new form of stratification – based on people’s ability to consume – those able to consume have the choice of a huge range of lifestyles, but those unable become disenfranchised – Bauman calls these flawed consumers, and they end up with outsider status. Secondly, post-modern life brings new uncertainties and insecurities – the individual has to ‘keep on consuming’ in order to ‘go on’ in post-modern society – to keep up with new products – to keep discarding the old and purchasing the new.
From Modernism to Post-Modernism?
Postmodern thinking applies to all sorts of human activity – to production, art and literature – and the focus is on pluralism, and on competing accounts of the nature of virtue, style, and truth (relatively in other words!). It is also on the transience and impermanence of definitions.
Postmodernism thus represents a reaction to the Enlightenment-sponsored modern search for THE truth, ultimate meaning and nature of reality.
In Postmodernism, because of the transient nature of truth, fashion and trend are just as important.
In postmodernism, the cultural dominance of the mass media are also emphasised – because the media constitutes most of what we know, and because there are so many images and sources of knowledge which we are exposed to, our sense of reality is impermanent – what we know is only here temporarily, until it is replaced with the next transient story.
According to postmodernism the social construction of knowledge works in the same way as the fashion industry promoting a new line of clothing – there is no objective or inherent beauty which makes one item of clothing better than any other – it is merely a matter of what the trend setters judge to be beautiful – which in turn is influenced by how much money/ power is expended through advertising – the same is true of knowledge – one set of ideas is not more correct than any other set – they just seem more accurate because more power is being excercised to promote one set rather than the other.
Modernism versus Postmodernism
For Modernist thinkers we can only be free if we live as we should, for post modernist thinkers we can only be free when nobody else tells us how to live.
Modernist thinkers believe that their analysis of existence – their metanarrative – is the correct one – thus they tend to be truth merchants – there are both religious versions of this, and secular versions – e.g. Marxism.
The postmodern critique of the above is that what ‘truth merchant’s do in the name of truth has too often resulted in oppression or death of those who do not agree with them.
A better solution than looking for the truth according to postmodernists is to accept that there is no ultimate truth and allowing other people the freedom to be different, to be tolerated even thought they are ‘other’.
A final reason why we can never get to the ‘truth’ is because postmodernists believe we cannot step outside the culture which made us – humans can every know via languages and discourse, and these can never be ‘true or false’ – think of the idea of a ‘true language’ – it doesn’t make sense!
This was a brief summary of one chapter of Pip Jones’s ‘Introducing Social Theory’
Critical Responses to Post-Modernity (A summary of the next chapter of Pip Jone’s Book)