Postmodernism is an intellectual movement that became popular in the 1980s, and the ideas associated with it can be seen as a response to the social changes occurring with the shift from modernity to postmodernity.
Postmodernists claim that the classic social thinkers took their inspiration from the idea that history has a shape – it ‘goes somewhere’ and is progressive. Jean Francois Lyotard argues that this idea has now collapsed and there are no longer any ‘metanarratives’ – overall conceptions of history or society – that make any sense.
The postmodern world is not destined, as Marx hoped, to be a harmonious socialist one, and thus Marxism (along with Functionalism and Feminism) and its promise of a better future are no longer relevant to the more complex and less predictable post-modern age.
Similarly, Lyotard argues that scientific research is no longer done purely to uncover knowledge to make the world a better place (like the original Enlightenment thinkers thought was the case), but simply to empower those with the money who fund it. This could explain why we have nuclear weapons but no cure for cancer.
Moreover, it seems that the pursuit of scientific knowledge (and especially its application) has in some ways made the world a riskier, more dangerous place – nuclear weapons and global warming are both the products of science, for example.
Democracy has spread around the world, but in many developed political systems voters are apathetic and politicians reviled. In short, for many postmodern theorists, the grand project of modernity has run into the sand.
For Jean Baudrillard (1929 – 2007), the post-modern age is a world where people respond to media images rather than to real persons or places. Thus when Diana, princes of Wales, died in 1997, there was an enormous outpouring of grief all over the world. But were people mourning a real person? Princes Diana existed for most people only through the mass media, and her death was presented like an event in a soap opera rather than an event in real life. Separating out reality from representation has become impossible when all that exists is ‘hyperreality – the mixing of the two.
Zygmunt Bauman (1992) offers a helpful distinction between two ways of thinking about the postmodern. Do we need a sociology of postmodernity, or a postmodern sociology?
The first view accepts that the social world has moved rapidly in a postmodern direction. The enormous growth and spread of the mass media, new information technologies, the more fluid movement of people across the world and the development of multicultural societies – all of these mean that we no longer live in a modern world, but in a postmodern world. However, on this view there is no compelling reason to think that sociology cannot describe, understand and explain the emerging postmodern world.
The second view suggests that the type of sociology which successfully analysed the modern world of capitalism, industrialization, and nation states is no longer capable of dealing with the de-centred, pluralistic, media-saturated, globalizing postmodern world. In short, we need a postmodern sociology for a postmodern world. However, it remains unclear what such a sociology would look like.
Bauman accepts that the modern project originating in the European Enlightenment of rationally shaping society no longer makes sense, at leas not in the way thought possible by Comte, Marx or other classical theorists. However, since the turn of the century, Bauman increasingly moved away from the term ‘postmodern’ – which he says has become corrupted by too much diverse usage – and now describes our age as one of ‘liquid modernity‘, reflecting the fact that it is in constant flux and uncertainty in spite of all attempts to impose order and stability on the world.
Many sociologists reject the thesis that we are entering a postmodern age altogether, and one staunch critic of postmodern theory is Jurgen Habermas (1983), who sees modernity as an ‘incomplete project’. Instead of consigning modernity to the dustbin of history, we should be extending it, pushing for more democracy, more freedom and more rational policy. Habermas argues that Postmodernists are essentially pessimists and defeatists.
Whichever view you think more plausible, it is the case that postmodern analyses have lost ground to the theory of globalisation, which has become the dominant theoretical framework for understanding the direction of social change in the 21st century.
Giddens and Sutton (2017) Sociology