Giddens: Modernity and Self-Identity – Introduction and Chapter One (A Summary)

modernity and self identityAnthony Giddens is one of the world’s leading sociologists and one of the main critics of Postmodern thought – and should be taught as part of the second year A level Sociology module in Theory and Methods. Below is a summary of one of his major works – Modernity and Self-Identity (the introduction and chapter one). 

Introduction – An Overview of the Whole Book –

Modernity is more complex and interconnected than ever before and modern institutions are more dynamic than at any previous point in history – at both an institutional level and in terms of how they impact on the individual and intimate life.

In modernity there is an increasing interconnection between two extremes – the global and personal dispositions (extensionality and intentionality).

The new mechanisms of self-identity shape and are shaped by the institutions of modernity and Sociology is a fundamental part of the institutional reflexivity of modernity.

There is a basic dialectic between modern institutions which encourage the repression of ‘living out’ existential questions in day to day life and the emergence of life-politics which seeks to manifest them.

Late Modernity has the following characteristics:

  • It is more intensely reflexive.

  • There has been a profound reorganisation of time and space – disembedding mechanisms change the nature of day to day social life.

  • It institutionalises radical doubt – all knowledge takes the form of a hypothesis – claims which may be true are always potentially open for revision such that the self has to be continuously (re-) made amidst a puzzling array of possibilities.

  • In circumstances of uncertainty and multiple choice the notions of risk and trust become central. Trust is necessary to form a protective cocoon so that we may ‘go on’ with our day to day life. Risk is also central – in modernity the future is continuously drawn into the present by means of the reflexive organisation of knowledge environments. Modernity makes some areas of life safer, but also opens up new risks.

  • The influence of distant happenings on proximate events become more and more common place – the media is common place and is what binds us together in this (against hyperreality).

  • Because of all of the above ‘lifestyle’ becomes central – reflexively organised life planning becomes a central feature of the structuring of self-identity, which normally presumes a consideration of risks as filtered through contact with expert knowledge.

  • The Pure Relationship is the main type of relationship.

  • Re-skilling becomes central to life.

  • The construction and control of the body becomes central.

  • Science, technology and expertise play a more fundamental role in the ‘sequestration of experience’. The overall thrust of modern institutions is to create settings of action ordered in terms of modernity’s own dynamics and severed from external criteria’ – as a result action becomes severed from existential questions.

  • Mechanisms of shame rather than guilt come to the fore in late modernity. Narcissism and personal meaninglessness become the main problems of self-development – ”authenticity’ is frequently devoid of any moral anchoring.

  • Yet the repression of existential questions is not complete – and life politics emerges in response.

  • Baudrillard confuses the pervasive impact of mediated experience with the internal referentiality of the social systems of modernity – these systems become largely autonomous and determined by their own constitutive influences.

  • The construction of self identity does not float free – class and other divisions can be partially defined through differential access to opportunities for self-actualisation.

GIddens Late Modernity

Chapter One – The Contours of High Modernity

Starts with the example of divorce to illustrate the gist of the chapter.

The experience of intimate life is not separate from social life. High modernity demands that we continually remake ourselves, and so it is with many relationships – as evidenced in the persistent high divorce rate, which is simply a consequence of the ‘pure relationship’ being the main type of relationship today.

Divorce is not necessarily a tragedy – for some it is an opportunity to further develop themselves, while for others they retreat into a resigned numbness. To make a ‘success’ out of divorce, one has to mourn it, accept that the marriage is ended, and move on!

Modernity: Some general considerations:

Modernity has the following features –

  1. It is industrial – social relations are rooted in the widespread use of material power and machinery in production processes.

  2. It is capitalist – we live in a system of commodity production which involves both competitive product markets and the commodification of labour power.

  3. There are significant institutions of surveillance – the supervisory control of subject populations – both visible and in terms of the use of information to coordinate social activities.

  4. We live in the context of the industrialisation of war – modernity has ushered in a context of ‘total war’ – the potential destructive power of weaponry, most obviously nuclear arms, is immense.

Modernity produces certain distinct social forms – most obviously the nation state, or a system of nation states, which follow coordinated policies or plans on a global scale – nation states permit and entail concentrated reflexive monitoring.

Modernity is also characterised by extreme dynamism – the current world is a runaway world – the pace, scope and profoundness of changes is significantly greater than any time before.

The peculiar character of modernity consists in the following:

Firstly the separation of time and space and the emptying out of time and space – the clock being the most obvious manifestation which presumed deeply structured changes in the tissue of everyday life, which were universalising, on a global scale. This is a dialectical process – the severance of time from space allows for new formations – such as the ‘use of history to make history’ – as in the significance of the year 2000, just because it was the year 2000.

Secondly the disembedding of social institutions – the lifting out of social relations from local contexts. There are two main ways this occurs – through symbolic tokens (such as money) and expert systems (therapists) and each of these permeate every aspect of late-modern life, and both depend on trust. Trust, a leap of faith is essential – because in a disembedded system we cannot know everything. Risk is also part of this.

Institutional reflexivity is the third feature of late modernity – the regularised use of knowledge about circumstances of social life as a constitutive element in its organisation and transformation.

The local, the global and the transformation of day-to-day-life

There is a dialectic between Modernity’s universalising efforts and the actual consequences: In the attempt to know and predict everything, in fact competing knowledge systems have emerged, and there is no way of knowing with any certainty which is correct, thus uncertainty lies at the heart of daily life.

The mediation of experience

Today, virtually all experience is mediated, but this does not result in post-modern fragmentation – in fact mediation is precisely what unifies all of us – pre-modern life is what was truly fragmented. We are now all painfully and persistently aware of the various modern problems which we cannot escape.

The Existential Parameters of High Modernity

The Future is the driving force of high modernity – or rather the attempt to colonise it based on the use of knowledge. We do this in the context of risk – We are all confronted with uncertainty because the rise of competing expert systems just makes us more uncertain. Expert knowledge has failed to make the world more predictable.

Why Modernity and Personal Identity?

Because never before has there been a time when so many people have been unified into the demands to reflexively make themselves – it is the institutional context of modernity which makes this possible – Globalisation, and abstract systems demand that we engage in self-construction, and therapy becomes central to this.

Anthony GIddens

Anthony Giddens

Related Posts 

Modernity and Self Identity – Chapter Two Summary

Giddens’ Modernity and Self Identity – summarised in 14 bullet points

Some introductory questions on Giddens’ Sociological Thought – to get students thinking (dangerous, I know)

Theory.Org has a useful outline of Giddens’ thought

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One Response to Giddens: Modernity and Self-Identity – Introduction and Chapter One (A Summary)

  1. Pingback: Giddens – Fate, Risk and Security | ReviseSociology

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